July 12, 2007
Vol. 26 No. 19

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Past Opine interviews:
Lauren Berlant
Stephen Berry
John Boyer
David Cohen
Jerry Coyne
John Cunningham
Richard Epstein
John Frederick
Henry Frisch
Austan Goolsbee
Bernard Harcourt
Greg Jackson
Martin Marty
Martha Nussbaum
Raymond Pierrehumbert
José Quintáns
Jan-Marino Ramirez
Saskia Sassen
William Sewell
Herman Sinaiko
Geoffrey Stone
Cass Sunstein
Simon Swordy

    Opine: Greg Jackson

    Greg Jackson
    (Photo by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee)

    Greg Jackson, Vice President & Chief Information Officer of the University, has been with the University since 1996. He recently received the Leadership Award from EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association that advances higher education through information technology, and he also testified before the U.S. House of Represent-atives Committee on Science and Technology hearings on “The Role of Technology in Reducing Illegal Filesharing: A University Perspective.”

    What book should every person read and why?

    I was going to say A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, but Cass Sunstein already cited and justified that choice. As my second choice, I propose Henry Petroski’s Engineers of Dreams, a chronicle of great bridges and builders—and how with each successive bridge built, the builders worked to improve on the last. But “improvement” follows a saw-toothed pattern. If the preceding bridge worked well, then the next one is more austere, less massive, closer to the wire, cheaper. If the preceding bridge failed, then the next one is over-engineered—at greater cost and with less austerity—to make sure the failure won’t be repeated, and the wheel turns. Petroski’s sequence of examples is fascinating, and I think bridges aren’t the only example of such cycles.

    If you could meet any scholar, author, composer, musician or entrepreneur—dead or alive—who would it be and why?

    I read lots and lots of mysteries. Some I read just to pass the time, in which case the crime and solution are enough and the prose can be pedestrian. But some I find compelling. These almost invariably use crime and detection as “maguffins” to illuminate a place, a community, a process, a subculture, an industry, an era, or something else I know little about—plus they have engaging characters and are well written. We’re talking Arturo Pérez-Reverte, K.C. Constantine, Elmore Leonard, Umberto Eco, Dorothy Sayers, and the likes. I’d love to know why their stuff is so much better, and although meeting any of them would be great, a well-run seminar with all of them would be better still.

    Among the complex moral and political issues that affect humanity, which do you believe will never be resolved and why?

    Back to Rawls here—we seem never to achieve stable, just societies that define their success by the well-being of those worst off. I’ve come to believe that perhaps there’s something intrinsic to humanity that’s antithetical to pervasive justice. I think we can keep making progress, but we’re also going to keep backsliding, and the result is going to remain short of the goal.

    If politicians had to pass an exam before they were allowed to serve in public office, what question would you add to the test?

    “Will you ensure that the neediest get served before the greediest?”

    If you could choose any three University professors and give them a one-year sabbatical together to solve a problem, develop a theory or make a discovery, who would they be and what task would you assign them?

    Our society succeeds in many ways, but it fails to provide the basics to all, although it clearly has the resources to do so. Figuring out how to remedy the failure without degrading the success requires the kind of interdisciplinary open debate for which this place is known. I don’t know what perspectives are the most promising, or who best represents each. I’d thus constitute the sabbatical threesome to solve not the problem, but rather the meta-problem: choosing the best interdisciplinary approach and the right proponents. The threesome would need to have a comprehensive view of the University, and since Provosts presumably have that, I’d choose our three most recent provosts (Thomas Rosenbaum, Richard Saller and Geoffrey Stone) to tackle the meta-problem.

    Think of a renowned scholar from the past who added great value to your area of study. What would this person think of the advances that recently have been made in this field?

    Information technology mostly comprises computation, communication and memory. Some relevant historical eminences are Alan Turing for computation, Samuel Morse and Alexander Bell for communication, and An Wang and Jay Forrester for memory. If we resurrected Turing, he’d be astonished by the degree to which “computer” is no longer defined in computational terms. People today say they’re using computers, but they think of them as search engines, databases, word processors, music players, display devices and so on. That is, today’s computers are defined by their applications, rather than vice versa. Despite his focus on machine “intelligence,” I doubt Turing would have seen that coming.

    What building on campus do you think is the most interesting architecturally and why?

    I sometimes introduce the University to outside audiences through its architectural history. I juxtapose the two sharply defined aesthetics of the gothic Oxford-like early buildings and Robie House, and argue that the early University embodied similar tensions. After World War II, the University built more conventionally, with some exceptions like SSA (School of Social Service Administration), NGRH (New Graduate Residence Hall) and Regenstein library; I see parallels with the University’s mid-century struggle to redefine its uniqueness. As the University’s focus has sharpened over the past few years, it also has returned to sharply defined architecture. Such architecture tends to be controversial—just ask anyone about Palevsky—but that is entirely appropriate for an institution whose essence is open argument. A prime symbol of the University’s present focus is the Graduate School of Business Harper Center. It manages not only to reconcile modernism with classical spaces and proportions, but finally to provide a bridge between the early symbols: its northern faŤade brilliantly echoes Robie House, while its winter garden evokes Rockefeller Chapel.

    Will a liberal arts education remain relevant to students in our increasingly technological society? Why or why not?

    It’s more relevant every day. If we don’t know where we’re headed and why, letting technology dictate direction, we meander at best, and more typically end up in the wrong place. Liberal education is essential if we are to find our way.

    How will the next generation of scholars—today’s students—change your field in the decades to come?

    I used to ask people two questions: How many computers are in your house? How many electric motors? Most people had little trouble answering the first question, but they would think hard about the second, and even so would greatly underestimate the total. My point was that as technologies insinuate themselves they become less and less noticeable. We tend to forget how important they are, to take them for granted, and so to neglect them. That’s been happening with computers, which now are becoming at least as prevalent (and as invisible) as electric motors. The next generation of scholars thus won’t realize how much they depend on complex information technologies, and therefore won’t be able to make thoughtful decisions about them. That will be an immense challenge for my successors.