General Petraeus at CUNY: Poor Judgment Under Fire

General David Petraeus‘ $200,000 deal with CUNY is no longer on; he will now teach in the fall at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College for the princely sum of $1. Yesterday, I participated in a Huffington Post Live segment–along with Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors and Kieran Lalor of the New York State Assembly–to discuss this development in the Petraeus at CUNY saga; like everything else in the sordid tale that preceded it, this latest bit of news, announced by the New York Times, merely adds to a picture of confused communication, insensitivity, and poor judgment.

In accepting a salary of $1, Petraeus is now posturing as the Magnanimous Public Servant[tm] showering the largesse of his knowledge and experience on the unworthy at CUNY. This is the same man who could barely contain his glee at salaries elsewhere–‘you won’t believe what USC will pay per week’–during the course of his grubby-enough negotiations with CUNY. What accounts for the change in heart? You, dear reader, get precisely one guess. (It has something to do with exposure in the press.) This sort of rapid retreat to an untenable position, under fire, does not speak well of Petraeus’ judgment. But it should not be surprising; this is the same man, after all, who thought it would be a good idea to try to negotiate a swanky deal, not with a private think-tank or consultancy group, but with a budget-deficient urban public university. Slipping into this condescending role should come easily to him. (As has been pointed out by many, Petraeus should have indicated a willingness to teach for the same salary that all adjuncts draw at CUNY: approximately $3000, with no benefits.)

The elitism does not end there, of course. Enrollment in the class is limited to sixteen students, and Petraeus, gallingly enough, will be assisted by, count ’em, two graduate students, at a university where faculty members have no teaching or research assistants that are not paid for by their grant funds. But it gets worse: three additional graduate students not from CUNY’s Graduate Center, its doctorate granting institution, will help him ‘assemble the syllabus’. These students are from Harvard. Nothing but the best for the General. Why would he ever deign to have a syllabus ‘assembled’ by the lowly students of the Graduate Center?  What could they offer this shining Messiah, descending from on high?

As I noted on the Huffington Post Live segment yesterday, this deal, and the sensibilities that underwrote it, have been dreamed up and implemented by an unholy blend of the management consultant and the corporate executive. It’s all there: the importation of  the rainmaking CEO, the inflated salary and perception of self-worth, the content-free mumbo-jumbo of the ‘value’ that Petraeus will bring to CUNY.

General David Petraeus does not strike me as a very smart or perceptive man. He–along with CUNY administrators–seems to lack the most elementary knowledge of the realities of public education, something that would have helped him adjust the parameters of the deal he could negotiate with CUNY: the content of the course, his salary, his assistants. And his response to a bout of sustained public criticism resembles nothing as much as panic.

CUNY students could, and should, take their leadership lessons from elsewhere.

7 thoughts on “General Petraeus at CUNY: Poor Judgment Under Fire

  1. Nice post – I look forward to checking out the Huffington Post segment.

    I just wanted to comment on your last sentence, that CUNY students should take leadership lessons elsewhere.

    In fact, it strikes me that this is exactly how leadership works in much of the U.S. (world?). It is similar to the problem in the Trayvon Martin case — that the systems (legal, political, economic, educational, etc) are now structured and organized in such a way that what one would think of as ethical, good, or successful, have been turned upside down.

    That leaves those of us who are faculty at CUNY in a very difficult position. At one point I was simply angry at the choices of the BOT and the Chancellor’s office. Now I think I am actually ashamed.

  2. This is a pretty damning indication that the university administration thinks that teaching is just a lot of talking (and in the general’s case, talking that is as shallow as ad copy). Professors, they seem to think, are just like news anchors — we read whatever is in front of us. These people should not be employed in public higher education.

  3. Excellent post Samir. I am surprised, though, that you did not choose to include this quote from Petraeus’s conversation with Kischner: “The truth is that I could have had gotten more money or more prestigious places [sic].” This is not the sentiment of someone who actually cares about public education.

    1. JD,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I was alluding to that quote in the post where I mentioned Petraeus bragging about his USC wages. In any case, you’ve brought it up!


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