These are tough times for public universities. Most have faced years of declining support from state legislatures. Almost all have raised tuition prices, forcing thousands of students to take out burdensome loans. A relatively small number of tenured professors and professional administrators enjoy secure jobs and comfortable salaries. But most of the teaching is done by contingent faculty paid as a little as $2,500 per course.

None of that has deterred the City University of New York (CUNY) from paying ex-Gen. David Petraeus $200,000 a year to teach one seminar. You can follow the paper trail at Gawker, which obtained the emails surrounding Petraeus’ appointment through a FOIA request. Among the highlights:

  • Petraeus will work little more than the time he’s actually in the classroom, about three hours a week. Apart from preparing his remarks, the grading and administration will  be done by teaching assignments paid by CUNY.
  • CUNY will likely divert money from other to functions to pay Petraeus. Chancellor Matthew Goldstein wrote that he hoped to supplement Petraeus’ salary with a private donation. But it does not appear that such a donation was actually secured, which means that Petraeus’ compensation will come out of CUNY’s general budget. 
  • Petraeus will hold simultaneous appointments, for which he will be paid undisclosed sums, at the University of Southern California and the Harvard Kennedy School.
  • Enrollment in Petraeus’ course will be limited to handpicked students from CUNY’s honors college, reducing the possibility that he will have to face uncomfortable questions (although Petraeus will also present two lectures open to all CUNY affiliates).

Forget Petraeus’ military record and personal indiscretions. The real question is, why is 3 hours per week of his already overcommitted time worth $200,000 to a cash-strapped public university?

The usual answer is that glamour  appointments attract favorable publicity. But it’s not clear why CUNY should care about that. Most CUNY students are poor and middle class New York residents who enroll there because it’s relatively cheap and close to home. They don’t need the added inducement of celebrity faculty.

Another part of the answer is that many university administrators have bought into the claim that contact with “the best” or “most accomplished” lecturers is more important than attentive teaching tailored to individual students and specific audiences. The same belief is behind some of the enthusiasm for online instruction. There are financial reasons to pursue this strategy: it’s cheaper to pay a few superstars for recorded lectures than to keep around a large fulltime faculty. But I think most of its advocates sincerely believe that people like Petraeus possess a special magic that helps students learn more than they would from ordinary professors.

Finally, the upper levels of the academy are an important part of what used to be called the Establishment. And while the Establishment is no longer limited to WASPs, it still takes care of its own by distributing sinecures, lucrative speaking engagements, corporate board appointments, and so on. In fact, Petraeus is earning considerably less than he would be able to if he really wanted to cash in. By way of contrast, consider that Rahm Emanuel amassed a fortune of $16 million in less than three years after leaving the Clinton White House in 1998.

None of this means Petraeus’ appoint at CUNY is formally unethical. As far as I can tell from the emails, it’s all by the book. And if a private donor can be found, it won’t cost the taxpayers anything. Even so, the episode indicates that CUNY’s priorities are not students’, regular faculty’s, or the public’s.