Camp Jackson

While going ahead with layoff plan, RPI's president is criticized for her compensation, including the perk of a 36-acre vacation home -- a benefit that may be unmatched in higher education.

January 26, 2009

University presidents are often criticized for excessive compensation, but Shirley Ann Jackson is taking heat for a benefit that may place her in a class all her own.

Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is taking heat for her high pay, and a notable perk: a second home in the Adirondacks, provided by RPI in addition to her presidential residence. Inside Higher Ed surveyed all 26 private institutions within the Association of American Universities, and officials with 25 of those colleges confirmed that their presidents are not provided a second residence. The University of Chicago was the only institution not to respond, but Chicago’s 2006 Form 990 only mentions a single home provided to the president.

While RPI is not a member of the AAU, the elite cohort of research universities surely constitutes the institute’s aspirational peer group.

Jackson’s $1.3 million compensation makes her one of the highest-paid private university presidents in the country, and her generous perks have drawn particular scrutiny as the university faces financial challenges. RPI recently laid off 80 of its more than 2,100 employees, and Jackson’s Adirondacks home, first reported on by The Albany Times Union, has emerged as a symbolic structure of inequity.

“We’re kind of upset,” said Brian Dolan, an RPI student who has led a petition drive for Jackson to decrease her pay. “It seems like it would be easy enough for her to cut a few of her luxuries, because she certainly has them, to help a few people maintain their livelihood here.”

Jackson declined an interview request, but RPI issued a statement about the second home, which the college purchased for $450,000, the Times Union reported. The home sits on 36 acres, a tract of land roughly one-third the size of Camp David.

“The purchase of this property was funded entirely by a restricted gift by a donor to the Institute,” William Walker, an RPI spokesman, said in an statement e-mailed to Inside Higher Ed. “The gift by the donor was given specifically to purchase this property. The Board of Trustees has made it available to the president as a retreat, and as a facility to host high level official activities, at her discretion.”

The chair and vice chair of the board did not return calls for comment.

Jackson has for many years been a prominent figure in government and academic science. She serves on many panels related to science and technology policy, and she was appointed in 1995 by then-President Clinton to serve as chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Jackson has also been heralded for her fundraising prowess, securing a $360 million unrestricted gift to RPI in 2001 and regularly landing major donations.Yet she has been a controversial figure on the Troy, N.Y. campus, where a no confidence vote in Jackson was only narrowly defeated in 2006. While the measure did fail by a six-vote margin, it revealed simmering tensions about Jackson's leadership, and growing objections to her generous compensation.

On Smithsonian Board, Jackson Heard Similar Criticism

Criticism of executive compensation levels should be nothing new to Jackson, who has been a member of the all-volunteer Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution since 2005. In the summer of 2007, an independent panel criticized the Smithsonian regents in a report for failing to recognize the lavish spending practices of Lawrence Small, the former Smithsonian director who resigned amid an accounting probe. An audit of the institute uncovered a string of unauthorized expenses, including charges for chartered jet travel and a trip to Cambodia for Small’s wife.

Dean Zerbe, who aided Sen. Charles Grassley’s investigations into the compensation of college chiefs and other spending practices on university campuses, said he was surprised Jackson would accept a presidential retreat, particularly given her work with the Smithsonian.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” said Zerbe, who is now national managing director of AlliantGroup, which provides tax services to accounting firms. “It raises huge questions of what is going on there. How anyone who could have had a ringside seat for all the Smithsonian debacle could believe that that is an appropriate benefit really needs to rethink where they are. I can’t think of any instance where I’ve seen this.”

The Smithsonian instituted a number of new policies in the wake of the scandal, including the establishment of a Governance Committee, which Jackson now chairs.

Some of Jackson’s other benefits at RPI are also fueling criticism. In addition to an “executive housekeeper,” the president’s office receives a substantial amount of personal security. According to RPI’s faculty/staff directory, the president’s office employs two separate “executive protection specialists,” as well as an “executive protection coordinator." RPI officials declined to discuss what these employees do, and why they are necessary additions to the campus police force.

As of last week, student protesters said they had garnered more than 1,000 signatures on an online petition that calls on Jackson to “publicly and significantly reduce her compensation.”

Bruce Nauman, a professor of chemical engineering and frequent critic of Jackson, said he was “stunned” that the president’s compensation has reached such levels.

“I remain stunned at the level of her compensation in light of her performance,” he said, “and understand that her perks, such as the Adirondacks vacation retreat and her personal security staff, are completely out of line with normal university practice.”


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