General Petraeus Goes to CUNY: Nobel Prize Winners, Eat Your Heart Out

The initial reaction to the hiring of General David Petraeus to teach at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College was one of astonishment at the salary–$150k for one semester–offered; this has since devolved into looking askance at the source of the funds and an inquiry into whether such expenditure was the best possible for a public university that is always struggling to make ends meet. (For a full round-up, please check Corey Robin‘s posts on this subject.). And since the course description for Petraeus’ course has been made available much skepticism has been directed at what seems like an exceedingly skimpy course, at best a generic international relations elective.

Petraeus is not teaching a specialized seminar for graduate students, or faculty, or anything like that. He is teaching sixteen undergraduates a senior year special topics elective. Presumably, his salary is a function of what CUNY perceives his worth to be, based on his experience and education. The weekly rate for Petraeus is not unheard of when it comes paying very accomplished academics; for instance, last year, the Wolfe Institute for the Humanities, as part of its Hess Scholar in Residence program, brought Sean Wilentz, the distinguished Princeton historian to the Brooklyn College campus for a  week; the amount paid to him–from the Hess Foundation–worked out to about the same rate as paid to Petraeus. But in that one week, Wilentz attended half-a-dozen faculty panels, some undergraduate classes and three working luncheons, and delivered a talk. In sharp contrast Petraeus will teach his regular class, once a week, just like any other adjunct would. (I presume he will have a TA, unlike adjuncts.)

With that in mind, here are some alternative scenarios for CUNY to ascertain what its market pricing for highly skilled and experienced teachers might be. Bear in mind we know nothing about Petraeus’ teaching abilities; he is just a highly educated and experienced military man.  So, what would CUNY pay for a distinguished academic , the winner of the highest honor in his or field, to teach a class in their special domain?

Consider the following examples:

A Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry to teach Concepts in Nanochemistry

A Nobel Prize winner in Physics to teach a Quantum Mechanics seminar

A Nobel Prize winner in Economics to teach Special Topics in Microeconomics

A Nobel Prize winner in Literature to teach Creative Writing: Advanced Techniques

A Noble Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine to teach Recent Advances in Genetics

A Fields Medal winner to teach Advanced Algebra: Groups, Rings and Fields

An Academy Award winning director to teach and direct a film in co-operation with Film Studies majors.

Would CUNY pay any of these 150,000 dollars to teach the class specified? Remember that CUNY does not have, like some other universities in the US, Nobel Prize winners in its ranks. If it was to secure the services of such a luminary, it would almost certainly hold it out as an attraction for its ‘best’ students–as it seems to be doing in the case of this Honors College seminar. My guess is that if CUNY was feeling generous, it would pay the folks above $20,000.  Maybe.

So, why the special treatment for Petraeus? As I said yesterday in my last post on this subject, it’s because bringing Petraeus, a powerful member of the governmental-military-corporate complex, to CUNY, will open the doors for folks in CUNY administration to get close to cushy consulting gigs in Washington DC, with the Pentagon, with the military, with all those folks in industry that Petraeus is, as we speak, networking with right now. They will have Petraeus here for a semester, and that is plenty of time to give him a copy of their CVs over a cup of coffee or dinner. Once he goes back to his regular tramping of the corridors of power, he will be able to take care of those who took care of him.

So, it bears repeating: this hiring decision has nothing to do with the students at CUNY; it has everything to do with folks in power taking care of each other.

2 thoughts on “General Petraeus Goes to CUNY: Nobel Prize Winners, Eat Your Heart Out

  1. I’m just throwing this out there, and I don’t want to be down on the academic side of CUNY, but isn’t there something to be said for the unique experience(s) of his background? To those interested in the field he is *the* man. He is, essentially, the only general in the world who has experienced commanding a large-scale kinetic operational theater (in Iraq and Afghanistan!), run the CIA and lived through his collection of other military tours through the prior 25+ years. Not to disparage the rest of us, or the military profession as a whole, but if there is a single man in the world who can be sure to bring something unique to the table then it’s him. He is simply better than anyone else. He’s the Noble Prize of war.

    Of course… How much is uniqueness really worth? I don’t know but I find it hard to get angry at CUNY for landing such a big catch. Maybe they had untidier ulterior motives but the result is an coup.

  2. Amy,

    Thanks for your comment. I don’t doubt Petraeus’ credentials. – as I noted above, he is a highly educated and highly experienced man. But even if he is the ‘Nobel Prize of war’ as you note, is he more valuable than the examples I have noted above? Each of those would be a coup for CUNY in the field(s) concerned. We’ve hired high-profile people in the past – like Phillip Roth and Elliot Spitzer. They didn’t anything close to him. All that said and done, if $150,000 were to be spent — from sources unknown — is this the best way to spend the money? At a university where we are struggling to keep our classrooms in working order? If you chase down the post I’ve linked above, you’ll see there are some very serious questions to be raised about where the money is coming from, and what CUNY stands to lose by spending it.


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