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America’s Highest Paid College President is Dragging Her School Into Crippling Debt

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President Shirley Jackson rakes in millions of dollars a year, but critics blame her for the bringing the school into debt and silencing her opponents.
December 16, 2014, 8:20pm
Photo via Wikimedia/World Economic Forum

The highest paid college president in the US now makes more than $7 million a year — after receiving a $5.9 million pay boost — taking in twice as much money as the private university head with the second largest salary, according to a recent report from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's (RPI) Shirley Jackson - the first black woman to lead a prestigious US research university - is a nuclear physicist who serves on multiple government boards and is a director at IBM and FedEx.

RPI's board justified Jackson's high pay with the claim that she could make far more money in a nuclear physics-related CEO position, a former RPI official who requested to remain anonymous told VICE News. The raise was a deferred compensation package - money that had been promised to her early in her RPI career as long as she stayed more than 10 years, the official explained.

"The Compensation Committee of the Board hired an independent professional compensation consultant with expertise in higher education to arrive at the 2012 base salary of $945,000," RPI's board explained in a statement. "The total deferred compensation amount of $5,889,964 was accumulated over a 10-year period, as a retention incentive, that would be forfeited if Jackson did not complete the required decade of service."

But critics allege Jackson has led RPI into deep debt, refused to hire more professors despite the growing undergraduate student population and rising tuitions, and silenced opposition voices - sentiments multiple sources expressed to VICE News, many of whom requested to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.

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"The real issue is that RPI is in terrible financial shape and students are getting shortchanged," former RPI physics professor Jim Napolitano, a 1977 RPI alum who worked at the school for 22 years, told VICE News. He said Jackson had also stripped the faculty of their influence, when the school's provost suspended the Faculty Senate in 2007 after staff held a no-confidence vote to express their dismay with her leadership.

The school is now in $828 million of debt - three times what it was when Jackson entered in 1999, Moody's Credit Ratings show. The money has been borrowed to build impressive new facilities, grow and enhance graduate research, and strive towards other goals in Jackson's ambitious Rensselaer Plan - but Napolitano and other former staff members told VICE News that undergraduate classes had grown in size, with professors pushed to increasingly focus on research as more undergrad students enrolled in the school.

"What's really important is that undergraduate education is not the priority anymore, and that's how the bills get paid," Napolitano, who left RPI this fall to work at Temple University, said. The student-faculty ratio at RPI is 15:1, compared to 8:1 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), according to statistics provided by the institutions. MIT ranks as the number one engineering graduate school, while RPI is number 38, according toUS News and World Report annual rankings. In terms of yearly salary, MIT President Susan Hockfield makes more than $1.6 million total.

Jackson has an incredibly impressive background - she was the first black woman to get a PhD from MIT, served as the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under Bill Clinton, and is now the co-chair of President Obama's Intelligence Advisory Board, among other honors.

 'The environment was becoming intolerable…She simply would not listen to people who had contrary bit of data.'

But RPI's engineering program, arguably the school's proudest division, has dropped in rank during Jackson's tenure. The graduate engineering program has gone from 17 to 38 this year, and the undergraduate program from 14 to 26 as of 2013, US News and World Report data shows. Jackson refused to listen to deans' requests for hiring more professors or getting more support, one former engineering professor who requested to remain anonymous told VICE News.

"I had 50 undergraduate advisees when I left RPI. This is a private school with high tuition yet with the same student ratio as a public school," the professor, who left a few years ago after teaching there 32 years, told VICE News. Multiple deans came and went also during Jackson's leadership, he noted. "The environment was becoming intolerable…She simply would not listen to people who had contrary bit of data."

The Student Senate also requested a review of her leadership and even recommended her potential removal from office due to her "top down leadership, abrasive style, existence of fear among staff and administrators, and lack of engagement on campus," the students wrote in 2011. But both Rensselaer's board and Jackson responded with statements that those concerns were unfounded.

Tuition at Rensselaer, like that of other private colleges, has seen immense increases in recent years. A student's average annual tuition is now $46,700 and overall costs now add up to $64,194, compared with a tuition of $29,502 when Jackson took over.

"I think [Jackson] has actually done quite amount of good over the years," former student Matt Moog, who started studying at RPI the same year she took office, told VICE News. He said the building boom had "transformed the campus quite substantially," but added that none of the improvements warranted such a steep tuition rise.

"I feel like we're pricing our kids out of tuition essentially," Moog said. "I work for a consulting company and I'm 11 years out of school - and I still owe $30,000 on my student loans."

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Jackson's pay is only a small portion of her institution's budget, but she represents the "tip of the iceberg" of America's trend towards a corporate model for universities, education experts told VICE News. As tuitions have risen more administrators have been hired and given higher compensation, while faculty numbers have remained the same or even decreased, Benjamin Ginsberg, author of "The Fall of the Faculty: the Rise of the All-Administrative University," told VICE News.

"Twenty-five years ago there were twice as many professors as administrators, and now there are more administrators than professors. It diminishes the quality of education," Ginsberg, also a professor at John Hopkins University, told VICE News.

'There is no single, smoking gun responsible for rising higher education prices.'

Private college administration staff sizes increased 135 percent from 1975 to 2005, spending tripled to $324 billion, and tuition more than doubled, as Ginsberg published in a study in The Free Library. Meanwhile the faculty-student ratio remained the same.

All types of colleges have hired more administrative staff over the past decade, while relying more heavily on part-time faculty, a report from the Delta Cost Project at the American Institutes of Research shows. But the administrative positions that have grown the most have included human resources, admissions staff, and other professional positions, rather than high-level executives - and the increased compensation has not been the main factor in rising tuitions, the researchers found.

"There is no single, smoking gun responsible for rising higher education prices," the study said, noting that increased benefits costs for faculty and the decline of institutional subsidies have both contributed to the pattern.

Thirty-six private college presidents made over $1 million in 2012, the Chronicle found. Still, private college presidents' salaries only accounted 0.5 percent of their institutions' budgets on average, the report showed.

The increase of administrators' compensation has actually been facilitated by the surge of student tuition, Ginsberg explained. As the federal government has provided more money for student loans, universities have been able to charge more money, with about 40 percent of the increases in college tuitions having gone to pay administration, he said.

Representatives from the advocacy group Strike Debt also told VICE News that administrative pay was not the key driver of higher tuition - but that leaders profited from the increases.

"We haven't heard much hand-wringing about student debt at the top of institutions, in part because they've been lining their pockets with it," Andrew Ross, a Strike Debt organizer and NYU professor, told VICE News. "There is an element of greed there."

And compensation of top administrators is far more political than based on specific metrics, Ginsberg said.

"America's highest paid presidents don't correspond to the best universities. Like in corporate America, compensation and quality of work are not closely related," Ginsberg said.

"It goes against the grain of what an academic culture is for people to be earning so much money at top," he continued. "These are non-profit instructions dedicated to pursuit of truth and inquiry, but when you have a profit motive at the top, decisions they make as an executive class are not necessarily tailored to needs of students, but to investors."

Since a school's board determines how much to pay their president, compensation is related to relationships between trustees and the leader, Ginsberg said. Multiple former faculty and administrators told VICE News that Jackson presented the board with a one-sided view of the school's success, and the Chronicle also reported such findings.

RPI's board and Jackson did not return requests for comment, but the board's chairman defended her in a past article to the Chronicle.

RPI's board and Jackson declined to comment on criticisms by the former faculty and students, but the board sent VICE News a press release detailing Jackson's accomplishments.

"Dr. Jackson has more than surpassed the expectations of the board," Arthur Gajarsa, the chairman of the board of trustees, said in the statement. "Time magazine called her 'perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science' and the National Science Board described her as a 'national treasure,' and that's how we see her."

The board noted that she secured a $360 million gift from an anonymous donor in 2001 and completed a $1.4 billion capital campaign in 2008, the largest in Rensselaer's history. She nearly tripled the amount of sponsored research, drew triple the applicants to the school, and put over $740 million into new on-campus construction.

"When the board elected Dr. Jackson, we were looking for a transformative agent," Gajarsa told the Chronicle. "Any time you're the change agent in an institution, you're going to be challenged by the establishment."

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Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @merhoffman

Photo via Wikimedia/World Economic Forum