New SP2 dean, an interdisciplinary choice


John Jackson is a filmmaker, author and interdisciplinarian


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John L. Jackson, Jr. is the incoming dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice. 

Photo by Connie Kang


John L. Jackson Jr., the next dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice, is already “through Penn 101.” At least, according to his predecessor.

But current SP2 Dean Richard Gelles’ statement is perhaps an understatement, considering Jack son’s eight years as a professor in both the School of Arts and Sciences and the Annenberg School for Communication.

Chosen as the first Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor in 2006, Jackson has taught classes in the Africana Studies and Anthropology departments of SAS. He has also served administratively as the associate dean for administration at Annenberg and as a senior advisor for diversity in the Office of the Provost.

Jackson was named dean of SP2 on March 19. He is one of Penn’s first African American deans, according to University Archivist Mark Frazier Lloyd said.

Of the four new deans announced, he is the only one who is currently a Penn professor.

“Insofar as learning how Penn works, John already knows that,” Gelles said. “I think it’s going to make his life and the school’s life a lot easier.”

In his experience at Penn so far, Jackson says he has admired the high level of interaction between Penn’s various schools.

“Being able to embrace a form of interdisciplinarity that allows one to be in conversation with a lot of different parts of the campus has been incredibly enriching,” Jackson said. “It’s something I really appreciate about Penn in particular.”

Throughout his career, Jackson has always worked to integrate various fields of study — working as a filmmaker, a professor, a writer and an anthropologist. He has written various books on race relations and racial identity, including an investigation into Harlem, New York and an analysis of “racial paranoia” in the 21st century.

However, he is also interested in studying the anthropology of identity more generally. “So race, specifically, but also class, ethnicity — thinking about how all of these different categories of identity intersect with one another,” Jackson said.

In addition to publishing four books, Jackson has also produced documentaries, film-shorts and a feature-length fiction film. His most recent documentary, “Bad Friday: Rastafari After Coral Gardens,” chronicles the history of state violence against Rastafarians in western Jamaica. The documentary has stimulated an attempt to reopen a court case in Jamaica, in which the public defender is using Jackson’s interviews with survivors of past violence.

“Making film isn’t just about public intellectualism, it isn’t just about making your research more palatable to a wider audience, it’s actually about trying to engage your subject in ways that are useful and valuable to them,” Jackson said. “This can also be a form of scholarship and a kind of political intervention.”

Jackson’s work has attracted admirers among Penn’s student body. Britney Thornton, president of the SP2 student body, has read many of his articles and books.

“I think he is a great man. I’ve been able to meet with him a couple times, and each time I’ve just been blown away with how personable and genuine he is,” Thornton said. “I think that he is going to carry our school into the next level of greatness, and I’m very excited that he’s our dean.”

Johanna Greeson, an assistant professor at SP2, does not know Jackson personally, but she said she expected him to be a relatable dean.

“The only question I had was that he’s not a social worker — he doesn’t have an MSW [Master’s in Social Work],” Greeson said. “That came up as something that we wanted to prioritize.”

Greeson mentioned that this might not be important in the face of Jackson’s experience with similar social issues.

Jackson feels that his previous work provides him with the background necessary to lead SP2.

“Part of what drew me to anthropology was the fact that I wasn’t just going to be up in an archive reading books, but I had to be in the world engaging people,” Jackson said. “That kind of interactive investment in other folks in the world — hearing their stories, seeing what one can learn from their experiences — I think is part of what’s going on in SP2.”

Gelles, who has been dean of SP2 for 13 years, is not a social worker either. “There will be a learning curve” for Jackson, he said.

“I had to learn a lot about social work from my colleagues, from our staff and especially from my students. That’s why I taught,” Gelles said. “Because I wasn’t a social worker by training, it was important for me to be with [students] two-and-a-half hours a week and hear about what was going on in their education.”

Jackson plans to continue teaching after becoming dean — at least one class per year — and he will keep a tenured position among the Annenberg faculty. His appointment as dean of SP2 is a “bittersweet moment,” Dean of Annenberg Michael Delli Carpini said, lamenting that Jackson will be less involved at the communications school.

“John has been one of our most productive and respected scholars, one of our most committed teachers and mentors and one of the most important voices in faculty governance at the school,” Delli Carpini said in an email. “But our loss is the School of Social Policy & Practice’s gain. He will make an outstanding dean.”

Ram Cnaan, a professor and the associate dean for research at SP2, also commended Jackson’s ability to interact with students, recalling his experience serving on two dissertation committees with Jackson.

“His attitude toward the defending student was extremely supportive,” Cnaan said. “He was very generous, both with his comments — they were critical but really very caring — and with his willingness to work with the student after the defense.”

Jackson said that he will continue to support students and faculty in his role as dean.

“I feel like my job is to be an advocate for the folks at SP2 — the faculty, the students, the alumni — and to be an ambassador for the school both on campus and beyond in the profession,” Jackson said.

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