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Staff Shake-Up at RJR Nabisco Raises Fear About Education Focus

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A leadership shake-up at the RJR Nabisco Foundation--a leading corporate supporter of school reform--is raising questions about its commitment to precollegiate education.

The Washington-based foundation's president, Roger D. Semerad, retired on Sept. 1, citing health reasons, and its full-time staff has been cut from eight positions to two.

Roberts T. Jones, the foundation's vice president and the former assistant secretary of labor for employment and training in the Bush Administration, was among those who lost their jobs. Mr. Jones was hired last winter with the expectation that he would take on a larger role down the road, observers said.

In addition, the foundation apparently has severed its relationships with several education consultants it had used regularly.

"We've looked through the company for ways to manage our activities in the most cost-effective manner possible, both in our operating companies and in our corporate staff,'' Jason H. Wright, a company spokesman, said in an interview last week.

Under the reorganization, precollegiate education "will continue to be one of our priorities,'' he said, "but obviously we're looking at other areas where we can make a comparable difference.''

The cutbacks at the foundation appear to be connected to a broader retrenchment effort at the corporation. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., one of Nabisco's operating companies, planned to lay off 1,000 workers in Winston-Salem, N.C.

As former foundation staffers began searching for new jobs, rumors circulated in the education-philanthropy community that the foundation was closing or moving to RJR Nabisco's New York office.

Joellen Shiffman, Nabisco's manager of grants and contributions, moved to dispel such talk, confirming last week that she and Amy L. Liker, the administrator of the Next Century Schools program, will continue to oversee the foundation's affairs from Washington.

The two remaining staff members, however, will now be located in the Nabisco's government-affairs office.

$30 Million Program

Despite the staff cuts, Nabisco remains committed to carrying out the remaining year and a half of the five-year Next Century Schools project, Ms. Shiffman asserted.

Nabisco launched the $30 million grant program--believed to be the largest corporate cash gift to individual public schools--in 1989, to encourage educators to experiment with "revolutionary'' ideas about teaching and learning.

The program was closely identified with Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the former chairman of both RJR Nabisco Inc. and the foundation, who left last May to head the International Business Machines Corporation.

The foundation also still plans to release a report this fall on the "Chinabreakers'' conference it held last June. The event brought together teachers, principals, administrators, and other educators to design a model school district. (See Education Week, July 14, 1993.)

Meanwhile, the president and director of RJR Nabisco Inc., Lawrence R. Ricciardi, will assume the foundation's presidency, and Charles M. Harper, the corporation's new chairman and chief executive officer, will become chairman of the foundation's board. Both will continue to be based in New York.

The fact that the company president has decided to head the foundation was seen by some as a good sign.

"That sounds like good news for the foundation,'' said Mary Leonard, the director of the Council on Foundations' precollegiate program. "If he's personally committed to it in a large way, the corporation will likely follow through.''

But others said the change suggests that, in these tight times, the company does not want to assign an employee to the job full time.

New Initiatives Unlikely

The staff cutbacks have been interpreted as a sign that the foundation is unlikely to take on new large-scale initiatives for some time.

"I think it's a disappointment because they really had gotten out in front and created a model that was followed by many,'' said Christopher Cross, the director of education programs at the Business Roundtable.

It is unclear whether precollegiate education will remain the focus of the foundation after the economy rebounds.

"I think any time that there's a change in leadership--particularly when the leadership has received substantial public attention--there is always apprehension about the future direction and goals of any organization,'' observed Norman E. Higgens, the principal of Piscataquis Community High School, a Nabisco Next Century School in Guilford, Me.

Others were less sanguine.

"I think it portends an end to their involvement,'' predicted Denis Doyle, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former consultant to the foundation. "My understanding is that they will have a new emphasis in the foundation ... but in a scaled-back way.''

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