Pay should only be as high as rankings

I am responding to the cover story and editorials in the November 4 issue. While I wish to point out that President Shirley Ann Jackson has performed well over the past decade, the extremely high pay vs. presidents at even higher-ranked schools is seriously out of whack, especially in today’s economy. I also oppose the statements made by Michael Zwack ’11 and Cara Riverso ’10 alleging that the school was of inferior quality prior to Jackson’s inauguration, and their failure to represent the students in this issue.

Under Jackson, the school built the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, and East Campus Athletic Village. Noble achievements, indeed. However, it takes more than a president to make these plans a reality. And, like other schools, RPI continuously constructs and updates to remain cutting-edge. RPI has done so before Jackson and will certainly do so after Jackson. If you want to judge favorably based on these results, then you must at the same time wonder how SUNY Albany got the Nanotech center, a massive facility paid for by corporate interests which arguably gets way more press than our newest labs. You have Sematech, who once considered RPI, now going to SUNY instead. Plus, SUNY Albany didn’t even have an engineering program prior to the Nanotech construction! This under Jackson’s watch. Did she not even attempt to lobby on behalf of RPI for these projects?

We’re paying the highest presidential salary yet the school barely cracks the top 20 in the academic rankings, over 100 valuable employees got Christmas gift pink slips last year, and tuition and fees have outpaced inflation and salary growth every year for the past two decades. So, when Jackson enjoys over a million in cash and an Institute-provided mansion, others have no salary and may face foreclosure, or parents need to take out second mortgages even despite financial aid. How is that a “best value”?

Don’t forget other achievements, like disbanding the faculty senate and effectively forcing out part-time students due to credit-hour price gouging.

Then there the claim that Jackson is donating 5 percent to scholarships, while her compensation goes from $1.4 million to $1.6 million, a 14 percent increase. Do the math­—it’s still a 9 percent net gain. If Jackson gave every student a c-note, her pay would still be top-tier at $450,000 plus benefits. Or take half her salary and rehire 8–10 of the layoffs. That’s real sacrifice indicative of a great leader and would earn my total respect.

As for comments against the school pre-1999, they are seriously out of line. I especially object to Riverso’s quote that “I doubt many of us would have wanted to come here.” How would you know the state of the school a decade ago? I was a student here then, and the decade before that, and RPI was always tops in relation to the advancement of the world’s technology and a great place to learn. As for former President R. Byron Pipes and many of his predecessors, they were in touch with the students. Pipes was visible on campus, at hockey games, knew this ordinary student by face and name, and even threw open the mansion for student events. Jackson seems to only be accessible to the students on special occasions, is often off on other corporate boards earning more cash, and resides behind a perpetually shuttered wrought-iron gate with campus security detail in the driveway 24-7.

If these actions happened at any public or many private universities, student protests would shut the campus down. Yet blind adulation in The Poly does not totally represent the students and contributes further to apathy. You probably don’t care because either you’re children of wealth or fail to see the sacrifices your parents make to put you through school. In 25 years, when you’re parents of future collegians and costs are outright unaffordable, you’d wish you took a stand today.

My closing paragraph is a plea to Jackson and the board. Keep pay reasonable for the good of the school. Take top-ranked pay only if we hit No. 1 in the rankings and endowments. Until then, above-average tier is fair.

To all readers: Take this home to your parents. Their sacrifices for you warrant their voices.

Richard Vehlow ’91 ’93 ’02