Tales of a Trailblazer: Dr. Michael L. Jackson ’68 Lights the Way for a Diverse Student Body at Stevenson
When discussing Stevenson with alumni, it’s common to hear stories of how the School has shaped their lives—as both thinkers and doers. It’s less common, however, to hear stories about how one Pirate affected the trajectory of the School. But the lasting impact of one such alumnus, Dr. Michael L. Jackson ’68, is indelible.
Dr. Jackson, who grew up in Los Angeles and San Jose, CA, was the first Black student to attend Stevenson. He was the only Black student when he enrolled in the fall of 1965. Dr. Jackson explains, “In the fall of 1964, Stevenson’s founding headmaster Robert U. Ricklefs proposed to the board of trustees that the School be integrated. He wanted ‘his’ boys to learn how to live, study, work, play, and cooperate with students from other races, cultures, religions, and social classes.” After Ricklefs proposed integration, trustee Arthur Dahl approached Michael’s aunt and uncle, Adrienne and William Reeves, whom he knew from their mutual membership in the Baha’i Faith, to ask if their son might be the right young man to attend the school. After some discussion, however, it was decided that Michael, who lived down the street with his mother, step-father, and sister, was a better fit than his cousin for being the first African American to enroll in Stevenson.
When his mother approached him with the idea, Michael had no idea what a “prep school” was. He explains, “I had no idea what she was talking about, but I did have a sense that my life was about to change. She said prep schools were private boarding schools where boys from wealthy white families lived on campus full time and went to school.” Unsure, Michael benefited from touring the campus with his mom and step-father to see what RLS was all about. He recalls being struck by the peacefulness and natural beauty of the setting, and by the good nature of everyone he encountered.
The decision to leave Andrew Hill High School in San Jose, where he was a freshman, was not an easy one. He was a straight-A student, an athlete, and a member of student government. The serene, quiet grounds of RLS were a stark contrast to the “crowded, noisy, and somewhat chaotic” public school environment to which he was accustomed. But, ultimately, he says he felt an instinctive pull towards RLS, and he decided to leave San Jose for Pebble Beach in the fall of 1964.
In the context of the 1960’s, Michael’s decision was an especially courageous one, and the School prepared for his arrival thoughtfully. Faculty and administrators discussed the process of integration with the student body president, Steve Merksamer ’65, and they were attentive to both the selection of his roommate and the placement of his room (on the first floor of Casco, just two doors down from the resident faculty member, Mr. Rodney Frye).
But Michael is quick to explain that while he paved the way for a more diverse student body at Stevenson, the School also had an unmistakable lifelong impact on him: “Those three years at RLS prepared me for life. I became a stronger student, excelled at sports, was elected junior class president, participated in debate and forensics competitions, and made friendships that continue to this day. I learned how to get along with different kinds of people, overcame personal challenges, and became a more independent, confident, and intellectual person interested in history and current events. I learned how to lead and support other leaders and how important healthy communities are to our collective success.”
After graduating, Michael thrived academically and professionally. First earning an A.B. in anthropology from Stanford in 1972, and then a MA and Ed.D. in higher education administration from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1976, he returned to Stanford in 1980, where he worked in a variety of positions, including as assistant to the provost and as dean of students. Stanford was also where he met his wife, Diana Akiyama, who was then the associate dean of the Stanford Chapel (and is now the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese Oregon). Eventually, Jackson was recruited to the University of Southern California (USC), where he served as the vice president for student affairs and as a professor of higher education for 18 years, until his retirement in 2013. He was part of the team of new leaders formed by former President Steven B. Sample that propelled USC from being a strong regional school to a top national university.
Jackson’s contributions to Stevenson’s campus were immense, but they didn’t stop once he departed Pebble Beach for Palo Alto. He has been meaningfully involved with the School since graduation, serving as president of the alumni association and then on the board of trustees. He also encouraged his cousin, Germano Diniz ’88, to attend Stevenson. Diniz is now the chair of the upper division’s mathematics department. He and his wife Diane have four children attending Stevenson. Their oldest daughter Dana won the Ricklefs award in 2020 and will attend USC in the fall. In 1999, Dr. Jackson and Bishop Akiyama established The Jackson-Akiyama Fund to support financial aid for deserving students who can contribute to diversity at Stevenson.
Throughout their careers, both Dr. Jackson and Bishop Akiyama have focused on making campuses more diverse spaces. They’ve worked to ensure that young people from underserved communities have access to places like Stevenson, Occidental College, Stanford, and USC. He explains, “We do so because the gift of education was given to me by Stevenson School.”
Recently, the couple also made the decision to include the School in their will and trust, in order to sustain and grow The Jackson-Akiyama Fund’s impact on Stevenson. “We have included Stevenson in our will and trust to support the School long after we are gone because the School’s investment and belief in me changed my life and provided professional and personal opportunities I never imagined.”
Dr. Jackson encourages fellow alumni to also consider how they can shape the School, even when they no longer have a tangible presence on or connection to the campus. He says, “I am not sure it will ever be possible to pay back RLS for all it has given me and my family. I encourage all alumni to think about how the School contributed to their development and success. Remember, even if your parents paid your tuition, it did not cover all the costs of your attendance at the School. We are all in debt to others’ generosity in this regard. Annual contributions and bequests from donors also support important programs that make our School more dynamic and stronger.”