After coming under a barrage of public criticism, disgraced former CIA Director David Petraeus turned down the six-figure salary he was offered for teaching one class at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College. Instead, his attorney announced, Petraeus will accept a payment of $1 per year.
News of Petraeus’s lucrative deal with CUNY broke July 1, when the website Gawker.com revealed that former Chancellor Matthew Goldstein had offered Petraeus $200,000 per year to teach a once-a-week seminar class for 16 students at Macaulay – over 30 times what most CUNY adjuncts receive for teaching a three-hour course.
Petraeus’s course is titled “Are We On the Threshold of a North American Decade?” It will focus on developments in energy, advanced manufacturing and life sciences and their economic implications.
Goldstein first broached the lavish pay package in a February 22 e-mail to Petraeus, one of several communications obtained by Gawker under New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). On March 6, Goldstein formally offered Petraeus a position as a visiting professor at Macaulay with a $200,000 annual salary. The former chancellor also promised Petraeus a team of graduate students “to assist you with course research, administration, and grading.” Petraeus’s appointment was approved by the CUNY Board of Trustees in April.
Nowhere in the e-mails or letters from CUNY is the job described as a part-time or adjunct position. When former Governor Elliot Spitzer taught a class at City College in 2009, following his own sex scandal and resignation, he was hired for the course at the highest rate for an adjunct full professor – about $4,500 per semester.
When Petraeus’s appointment was first announced, it provoked sharp criticism from many in the CUNY community, who asked why the former general’s record in Iraq and Afghanistan should be viewed as a reason to hire him at CUNY. Many of those voices were raised at Macaulay. “This is outrageous – I can’t believe Macaulay can actually appoint this war criminal as a professor,” commented Macaulay graduate Maha Akhtar, according to a report in the Macaulay Messenger, the school’s online student paper. “This brings complete shame to me as a Macaulay alumnus and reflects terribly on Macaulay, as a ‘scholarly’ community.” The revelations on Petraeus’s pay sparked a new wave of questions about this use of the University’s scarce resources.
CUNY soon became embroiled in a second controversy after it released a series of e-mails purporting to show that Petraeus had in fact agreed to work for $150,000 per year instead of the $200,000 per year that Goldstein had offered, and that Gawker had reported. In an e-mail from Macaulay Dean Ann Kirschner to Petraeus, time-stamped 1:15 pm, July 1, Kirschner states that she is “memorializing our discussions over the past few months regarding your appointment as Visiting Professor at Macaulay Honors College at $150,000.”
Republican State Assemblyman Kieran Michael Lalor, a Marine veteran of the Iraq War, quickly questioned the veracity of CUNY’s response. In a letter to interim Chancellor Bill Kelly, Lalor noted that Kirschner’s “letter” to Petraeus appeared two and a half hours after the Gawker story and that there was no prior documentary evidence of a $150,000 salary offer.
“That’s strange,” Lalor wrote, “given the fact that there are numerous back-and-forth e-mails discussing the salary written before the Gawker story. All of those e-mails conclude that the salary will be $200,000.”
After the July 1 letter “failed to convince critics,” the University “released a document that was described as an early draft of the agreement” on a $150,000 salary, reported The New York Times. “But that draft had never been sent, making its relevance unclear, and it was not included with the original cache of documents that had been released” in response to Gawker’s detailed FOIL request, noted the Times. “A chorus of observers accused CUNY of a cover-up.”
Skepticism was heightened by the fact that CUNY posted this latter document, bearing a date of May 29, on its website in several different formats that shifted over the course of the day. Corey Robin, an associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College who blogged extensively about the Petraeus affair, posted screen shots of the different versions, asking: “Did CUNY administrators fabricate a document trail after the Gawker story broke in order to make it seem as if they had already decided to offer Petraeus a lower salary...?” CUNY insists that the May 29 date on the unsent draft is accurate.
Whether $150,000 or $200,000 per year, the proposed compensation for Petraeus elicited outrage from many quarters.
“It is obscene for a university that operates on a bare-bones budget to pay anyone $150,000 for a single course,” PSC President Barbara Bowen said in a statement released to the media. “Every dollar raised at CUNY, whether from public or private sources, should go to providing broad access to a quality college education.”
“What’s the mission of CUNY?” Martin Snyder, acting executive director of the AAUP, asked on ABC News. “To teach students of New York City, not to create an exclusive discussion group with a general.” (Students in Macaulay’s already selective program must be approved by Petraeus in order to take the class, and must complete an application with a faculty recommendation in order to be considered. See Clarion, June 2013.)
Elected officials were critical as well.
An online petition launched by City Councilmember Brad Lander quickly received more than 3,000 signatures. “It is outrageous to spend so much on one class, when some CUNY classes are so over-subscribed that students sit on windowsills and radiators because all the seats are full,” Lander’s petition said. “These funds surely could be better spent...to help students who cannot afford to pay the 30% tuition increase that CUNY has been implementing over five years,” it argued. “CUNY’s mission is to provide a college education to the children of the whole people, and these expenditures of funds are an insult to the people of New York.”
Public Advocate and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio voiced a similar position, urging CUNY to renegotiate Petraeus’s salary and devote the savings to projects “that will better serve CUNY students.”
Assemblymember Kieran Michael Lalor, the upstate Republican who was an early critic of the deal, blasted CUNY for offering Petraeus so much money when its students face five consecutive years of tuition increases. “Students and taxpayers are both subsidizing this cushy new job for Petraeus,” Lalor said.
According to the e-mails published by Gawker, a three-member faculty committee to consider Petraeus’s appointment was first created on April 2 – nearly a month after the chancellor formally offered Petraeus the job. In response to questions from Clarion about the process for Petraeus’s appointment, a statement from Dean Kirschner said that this committee “recommended his appointment on April 2, 2013.”
In one e-mail published by Gawker, a Macaulay official tells committee members that, in response to their request to meet with Petraeus in person, he is trying to schedule a session for April 12. Clarion also asked Kirschner when the committee actually first met with Petraeus, but she chose not to respond.
Asked whether the process for Petraeus’s appointment violated the union contract, PSC officials said only that they have made an official request under the contract for information on the terms and conditions of the appointment, but have not yet received a response.
While CUNY initially dismissed concerns about Petraeus’s salary following the revelations by Gawker, the controversy only continued to grow. The former four-star general eventually decided to retreat. On July 15, his lawyer, Robert Barnett, announced that Petraeus would teach at Macaulay for $1 per year “to remove money as a point of controversy.”
On July 17, the New York Post editorial page blamed the Petraeus debacle on the union, saying that “the outcry against [the Petraeus] appointment was led by the Professional Staff Congress.”
Gawker, however, seems to think that its own reporting had something to do with the explosion of controversy. “We’re Sorry for Costing David Petraeus $199,999,” said the headline on its article of July 15.