Friday, July 12, 2013

Daily News Op ED: CUNY and Petraeus: A $150,000 mistake

Why is the public university investing so much money in a celebrity hire?

Former CIA director Gen. David Petraeus.

It takes a lot to put liberal college professors, a Democratic candidate for mayor and a conservative Hudson Valley assemblyman on the same page. The City University of New York has done just that through its decision to hire retired Gen. David Petraeus for an enormous sum — and its incoherent explanations about the hiring since.

I am joined by the American Association of University Professors and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio in criticizing the bloated $150,000 payday CUNY has handed Petraeus to teach a single, once-a-week class.

The seminar at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors college will be nice for the bright young students enrolled in it in the fall (16 have enrolled so far) and spring. Petraeus is a brilliant man with tremendous experience in the military and a famous name. As a former serviceman, I have profound respect for his accomplishments.

But I also have profound respect for every dollar spent by a public university system like CUNY, the primary goal of which is to make a quality education affordable — to help students and families climb the economic ladder. The role of a public university is particularly vital in a city and state of immigrants like New York.

The average CUNY adjunct makes $3,000 per class. In 2009, Eliot Spitzer signed on to teach a political science class — and was paid $4,500 for the semester, an amount that the New York Times described as “the highest rate paid to the highest level of adjunct City University faculty.”
Can one man, carrying nothing close to a true professor’s workload, be worth 33 to 50 times that sum? And how engaged in the life of the university will Petraeus truly be, given that he’s also slated to be a professor at the University of Southern California, 51/2 hours away?

CUNY officials claim the salary is not a problem because the money is coming from private donations, not tax dollars. But earlier this week, they told my office that they have yet to receive any donations specifically made to pay for Petraeus’ salary.

Instead, they plan on using unearmarked donations to CUNY’s Research Foundation.

This means other projects will go unfunded. And even if CUNY does ultimately receive a donation for Petraeus, that donation might have gone to something else.

Supporters of the Petraeus hire also argue that the size of a salary should be left to the market, suggesting that nobody would think twice if Harvard or NYU lured a similar talent. If this were a private school, perhaps they’d be right — though some trustees might still be justified asking for a rigorous cost-benefit analysis.
But CUNY doesn’t need celebrity academics for their own sake. It needs outstanding professors who can contribute great research and top-tier teaching to the overall good of the university.

CUNY and Petraeus have also entangled themselves in a strange series of explanations about exactly what deal they reached and when. Petraeus’ salary was first reported as $200,000, using correspondence between the university’s central office and Petraeus acquired via a Freedom of Information request. Just hours after that story broke, CUNY claimed that Petraeus had generously agreed to take $150,000 — a portion of which, we were told, would go to an undetermined veterans’ charity.

CUNY’s final version of events is that the $200,000 sum was an informal preliminary agreement between Petraeus and then-Chancellor Matthew Goldstein. Conversations then continued between the general and the Macaulay Honors College dean — who verbally formalized the lower salary, and put it on paper after the press started asking questions.

The shifting stories are confusing, but they should not detract from the central point. Celebrity hires like Petraeus may be fun at administration cocktail parties, they don’t fit with the mission of a public university.

CUNY needs to rescind the Petraeus offer and refocus on its mission of providing a good education at an affordable tuition.

Assemblyman Lalor (R), a Marine veteran of Iraq, represents Dutchess County

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