For RPI, Priorities An Issue

Layoffs Spark Questions About School’s Spending On Construction, Salaries

Originally published December 25, 2008 at


TROY β€” His 14-month-old coos cheerfully in a forest of toys on the floor. But forget Christmas decorations: Rob Ecuyer worries about paying for food.

His chronically ill wife sits beside him on the couch of their $600-a-month Lansingburgh rental. Her health is another concern: How will they cover the bills once the insurance runs out?

Until this month, Ecuyer had a great job for a 34-year-old with a community college degree. The Albany High School graduate earned nearly $45,000 as a technical supervisor for a research lab at one of the biggest employers in town, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Now, like other newly laid-off workers, he’s starting over.

“When people need their jobs the most, during the holiday season, and that’s when RPI decides to lay people off,” said Ecuyer.

RPI administrators refused to release details about the cuts, but a state labor official said the school is laying off 98 of its roughly 1,800 employees. Numerous interviews with current and former RPI employees painted a picture of the people affected: janitors and secretaries, groundskeepers and librarians, techies and publicists.

Employees who lost their jobs and others who didn’t are questioning RPI’s lavish spending on executive compensation and new buildings like the just-opened $200 million Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center.

At the center of this turmoil is President Shirley Ann Jackson, an ambitious, aggressive, well-connected, high-level appointee whose name has surfaced in editorials as a possible Senate replacement for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Jackson’s salary is as impressive as the resume she has compiled in the years since she became the first black woman to receive a doctorate from MIT. In recent days, at least one professor has publicly called for her to take a pay cut, as other college presidents have done to pitch in during hard times.

But a Times Union review of available records found that salary is only the start of a compensation package that has exploded from $423,150 in 1999-2000 to $1.3 million in 2006-07. Jackson out-earned the heads of richer and more prestigious schools such as Yale and MIT, according to the most recent figures in a Chronicle of Higher Education database.

Then there is the presidential residence. And the 36-acre Adirondack home that the school bought for $450,000. And further amenities suggested by a close reading of RPI’s faculty/staff directory, from a “house manager & presidential events coordinator” to an “executive housekeeper.”

One faculty member e-mailed all RPI professors this month arguing that RPI should cut Jackson’s compensation and sell the Adirondack house.

“I suspect she can squeeze by on a million or so a year since many of her living expenses are paid by RPI,” wrote Bruce Nauman, a frequent Jackson critic.

Nauman pointed out that Jackson also receives income from board memberships, estimating the total at $500,000.

It’s actually more. Her work on outside corporate boards — IBM, Marathon Oil, FedEx, Medtronic, NYSE Euronext, and PSEG — earned Jackson nearly $1.3 million in total compensation, according to a Times Union analysis of the companies’ SEC filings for the most recent fiscal years available.

The recession has strained colleges here and across the country. Schools are seeing major chunks of their endowments evaporate as more students need financial aid. Many are freezing hiring.

Still, higher education has generally “been almost a recession-proof industry,” one that can tap different sources of revenue, said Joni Finney, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies college economics. Layoffs tend to be rare, she said.

“This seems like a pretty drastic action, compared to what else is going on around the country right now for higher education,” Finney said. “It makes me wonder about what financial problems they’re having that are sort of beyond the ones that are facing all colleges and universities right now.”

Some layoffs are happening at other schools. But it’s far more common for colleges to announce the elimination of adjunct slots for next semester, said Scott Jaschik, editor of the Web site Inside Higher Ed.

The Times Union sent RPI a list of questions about the school’s finances, whether more employees may lose their jobs, whether the Adirondack house may be sold, and whether administrators would forego any compensation.

William Walker, Vice President for strategic communications, responded by referring the paper to mass e-mails from Jackson and a Q&A on the RPI Web site.

Those documents say the endowment has lost value. RPI explored alternatives to layoffs, such as furloughs, salary reductions for all employees, and a four-day work week. None, RPI said, “was sufficient to address our needs.”

The new buildings on campus were paid for with funds outside of the general operating budget, RPI said. The “Office of the President” also has gone through cuts. The school “did not make these decisions lightly,” Jackson said.

“Rensselaer has provided enhanced severance benefits, career outplacement services, and counseling services for all affected staff, in addition to unemployment benefits,” she said.

In Lansingburgh, Ecuyer expressed gratitude for those benefits. But looking ahead to a new year, with so many others jobless, he’s “hoping for a miracle.”

“Every morning,” he said, “I have to look my son in the eye and know that I can’t …”

His voice trailed off. His wife laid her head on his shoulder.

Then Ecuyer looked away, wiping his eye.

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