Lisa Jackson GS ’86, who served as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2009 to 2013, came to campus to speak publicly about the “unfinished business” of the environmental movement. She spoke with The Daily Princetonian, sharing her reflections on her time at the EPA and her plans for the future.
The Daily Princetonian: How have you been enjoying your time off?
Lisa Jackson: It has been wonderful. I’ve been making jokes, but it was a little bit of D.C. detox, is what I’ve been calling the program, just some time to sort of take time away from it, which allows you to reflect on it, allows you to refocus and eventually re-engage.
DP: What’s it like to be back on campus?
LJ: It’s always good to come back to Princeton. I’ve been very grateful to President Tilghman who, I think, through her efforts to reach out to women [alumni] and larger numbers of [alumni]. And really, I’m a part of that effort, and so it’s been wonderful to reconnect with the alma mater and to be able to do so with the community here, the Woodrow Wilson school and the Andlinger Center, doing exactly the kind of work that I’ve been working on in the policy arena, has been fun.
DP: What accomplishments at the EPA are you most proud of?
LJ: When you look back at the four years, I’d like to cite two, and they are very different in many ways. The first is a scientific finding that led to major policy changes, so it’s sort of that sweet spot of science and forming policy. The endangerment finding, the scientific finding that I was able to sign in December 2009, found that emissions of greenhouse gases are endangering public health and welfare. The finding itself was a scientific one, but because of the way the Clean Air Act is written, the finding is the basis for action. Once EPA makes a finding that a pollutant is actually endangering public health and welfare, EPA is obligated to act to address it. So the president’s clean car standards are based on that finding, and any future regulation of power plants for greenhouse gases would be based on that finding.
And the second one is totally different. One of our several priorities was expanding the conversation on the environment and working for environmental justice. It was essentially the idea that the environment was from the start a populace movement: It was built on listening to and activating the concerns of the American people about the safety and health of their environment, the cleanliness of our water or air. My belief is — and I think many people agree now — that broadening the basis for environmental issues is extremely important. This includes bringing new voices into the coalition, committees of color, communities that might be marginalized, and also, everyday people who might not say, ‘I’m an environmentalist,’ but who respond and resonate when they hear how environmental issues affect their prosperity and their health.
DP: In December, the Washington Post reported that your name was floated as a potential candidate for the Princeton presidency. What was your reaction to this article?
LJ: I smiled. Who wouldn’t smile at humor like that? It’s certainly not a bad thing to be thought of as among the core people that would ever even be considered, so it’s lovely. But I knew then that it was just speculation.
DP: Would you potentially be interested in the Princeton presidency?
LJ: I think Princeton has some great candidates and so, as flattered as I am, I don’t think that’s the likely next thing for me. That’s not because of the lack of care and concern for this university. I hope to be able to, in my now post-public service time, try to be impactful on the community and helpful to it.
DP: What is your opinion on the articles recently published by Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80 and Susan Patton ’77?
LJ: I definitely read Slaughter’s. I haven’t read Patton’s. I can’t believe it, so I’m not going to comment on them except to say that it’s just funny to me that those are the loudest discussions coming out of this campus right now. Maybe it’s just some pent-up things people have needed to say but I’ve got a feeling that Princeton women and men can speak for themselves on those issues.
DP: What's one part of your agenda you weren't able to accomplish as EPA administrator that you wish you had?
LJ: Part of the decision [I made] with the president about timing and leaving is being able to reconcile yourself with the fact that it’s a road and a journey, it’s not a destination … And so I wish the president’s nominee, Gina McCarthy, all the best — another woman from a neighboring state. I can name any number of things, but if I were staying, I know that the priorities would switch. We would continually work to broaden the conversation and bring more people into working with the environment and giving communities voices at the table. Some of [the challenges] were fiscal, obviously. [Washington’s] convulsions around sequestration make it difficult. So the only thing, in some ways, I regret is more that the agency is going through — like much of federal government — tough times. I worked there for 22-plus years altogether, and you think of your colleagues and former colleagues and you just wish them well as they go through this time.
DP: Where do you see yourself going after your time off? Have you received any other offers for the future?
LJ: I’m hoping that I’ll be making some decisions and then some announcements. Or at least, decisions. I don’t know if we’ll be doing formal announcements, and I’ll sort of decide on the path forward in the next weeks, so more to come.
DP: Has anyone from the Princeton presidential search committee contacted you?
LJ: [Laughs] Yes, but that is an unfair question. I was honored as many Princeton [alumni] were to have a chance to talk to the members of the community. They did a nice sweep in Washington — just gauging from alumni — and it was just an honor that they came to talk to me, [saying,] “What do you think is important in the next president?” And I know they were very involved in doing that with students as well. So kudos to them on the process, which is very open and participatory. But it makes it sound different than it is to say ‘Yes, I was contacted,’ because that was the nature of it.
DP: Do you see yourself getting more involved in New Jersey politics?
LJ: You know, you never say never, but right now, the issues that I have given my career to thus far, which are the environment and the broader issue of sustainability, are the ones that animate me. And so I know that anything I do next is going to be about those issues because I think they’re vitally important to our health and our economy and our future as a country.
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