Colleagues, former students remember Professor James S. Jackson, a scholar ‘renowned for his optimism and his energy’

Saturday, September 19, 2020 - 12:17am

James S. Jackson passed away Sept. 1 in Ann Arbor after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.

James S. Jackson passed away Sept. 1 in Ann Arbor after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Buy this photo
Courtesy of The Institute for Social Research

James S. Jackson, former psychology professor and director of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, passed away Sept. 1 in Ann Arbor after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. His colleagues, students and mentees overwhelmingly remember him as warm, generous and brilliant. 

Jackson was born in 1944 in Inkster, Michigan. He received his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Michigan State University, a master’s degree in psychology at the University of Toledo and a doctorate in social psychology from Wayne State University. He retired from the University this past year, where he had worked since 1971.

Jackson was the Daniel Katz Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Psychology and research professor emeritus at the Research Center for Group Dynamics. He also served as the director of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies and the director of the Institute for Social Research from 2005 to 2015, where he founded and directed the Program for Research on Black Americans.

David Lam, current director of the Institute for Social Research, said on top of being a trailblazing researcher, Jackson was charismatic and personable. 

“He was a giant in ISR,” Lam said. “The PRBA was visionary. It was really a very pioneering research program to study Black Americans. It produced many generations of Black scholars of Black America, health disparities and racial discrimination. It was very pioneering for its time and it’s lasted for over 40 years.” 

Jackson was a major name in the field of survey research. He created the National Survey of Black Americans in 1977, the first national cross-sectional survey of Black Americans, to understand the diversity within the Black community.

Robert Taylor, School of Social Work professor, was a student and colleague of Jackson’s. He said Jackson’s work on the NSBA will be one of his enduring legacies. 

“He really believed and really pushed the fact that when you do research with African Americans, it is okay to look at in-group analysis,” Taylor said. “Before his first major survey, we were unable to do that. So every comparison was between African Americans and whites. But when you do that, you don’t learn much about African Americans.” 

Taylor said Jackson will also be remembered for his mentorship of students and postdocs. Taylor compiled a list of dozens of Black students and alumni of the PRBA who have gone on to become deans, chairs and administrators at schools including Yale University, the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley.

In Ann Arbor, nine former PRBA students became full professors, one became an endowed professor and one is the chair of the Department of Health and Behavior and Health Education at the School of Public Health. Taylor said these lists reflect Jackson’s commitment to his students’ success and the impact the PRBA had on those he mentored.

“He’d help people fill their potential,” Taylor said. “There’s a lot of people who would have left their doctoral programs if they hadn’t started working with James in the PRBA.” 

Cleo Caldwell, professor and chair in the School of Public Health, is a former student of Jackson’s. She said without him, she would never have ended up in academia. Caldwell recalled that as her research mentor, Jackson urged her to gain valuable teaching experience despite her initial skepticism.

“I said, ‘James, I don’t need teaching experience because I’m not going into academia,’” Caldwell said. “But he looked at me and he said, ‘You don’t know where you’re going to be, so what you need to do is to give yourself degrees of freedom so you can end up doing what it is you want to do.’ So for that year I taught, wonderful experience, and I left, and then I came back to academia.”

Jamie Abelson, a senior research associate at the PRBA, said Jackson’s mentorship style had a ripple effect across the academic world and created generations of scholars who became mentors themselves. 

“He was renowned for his optimism and his energy, which helped propel everyone forward,” Abelson said. “And not only are all the people who ever worked with him grateful but they all acknowledge that they learned from him how to be a better mentor, so generations after those (who) worked directly with him have benefited from him.”

Abelson said 70 PRBA alumni joined a Zoom call the night of Sept. 14 to gather and remember Jackson’s legacy.

“James was a powerhouse, even at age 27,” Abelson said. “One of the renowned researchers … was on the call and was saying, ‘Picture what you were like at 27, or what your children were like at 27. And just think, that this man was doing such important stuff at that point.’ He hit the ground running.’” 

Angela Dillard, professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies and the Residential College, said Jackson was funny and brilliant. 

“He was enormously generous with his time and with advice,” Dillard said. “He was a really warm, collegial person, and a real role model about how to do first-rate academic scholarship, and then how to take on these administrative and leadership roles and really do them well. So I know that people say things like this when people die — they’re like, he’s a great person — but he really was incredibly warm, really funny, terrific smile, and is a kind of person who had the ability to really put you at ease.”

University President Mark Schlissel expressed his condolences for those who knew Jackson and noted how his research changed the way race is studied in the United States.

“Condolences to all who knew and learned from @UMich Prof. James Jackson,” Schlissel wrote on social media. “He was a top scholar, leader, mentor, colleague & advocate for equity. He made our world better and smarter with groundbreaking research on the influence of race on the lives and health of African Americans.”

Caldwell said that while it would be impossible to list all the areas where Jackson made an impact, he is remembered for his work in fields spanning from social science to health science to social work.

“He was a giant in aging and physical health research, research on discrimination and social identity, research on mental health of Black Americans, political studies, neighborhood studies –– it’s so much, you can’t cover it all,” Caldwell said. “But with all of that, it was looking at Black populations, which allowed us to learn a lot.” 

Above all, Taylor remembers Jackson for his warmth. 

“One of the things that stands out was how warm he was to everyone,” Taylor said. “Anybody who visited James at the PRBA, James Jackson was one of the first people to come out and greet them and say hello. It didn’t matter who they were or where they were from, he was always very warm and very positive and very helpful.”

Daily Staff Reporter Julia Rubin can be reached at julrubin@umich.edu.


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