General David Petraeus ignited a controversy when Gawker revealed that CUNY would be paying him $150,000 to $200,000 to teach two classes of about 16 students each and be assigned 16 Teaching Assistants. Yesterday, The New York Times reported that the offer has been reduced to $1, presumably because Petraeus and his representatives recognized the public relations disaster that had resulted, most ironically, from an effort to launder the man's reputation.
But the story is not over and the Petraeus incident has spotlighted the uneasy existence of so-called Honors Colleges within colleges, especially at public institutions like CUNY whose mission is to educate students of modest means. Two CUNY graduates, one who was a Macaulay Honors student and one CUNY Grad Center graduate, have a spirited debate on my colleague Corey Robin's blog debating the merits of an honors college within a college. (Also, it was Corey who wrote originally about the coverup over the salary flap.) The Macaulay honors students are provided with special designated resources far beyond the typical CUNY student. They are given a MacBook Pro, their tuition is covered, they are given a stipend, and they have designated advising staff.
But there is more than the issue of additional resources. The Macaulay Honors College thinks it is the cream of the CUNY system for the most deserving. J.K. Trotter, the Gawker reporter who broke the salary story, also filed another FOIL request and obtained additional documents from CUNY. Among that second cache of documents from the FOIL request is a draft oped that Kirshner and Petraeus were writing together in the hopes of publishing it in The New York Times. (h/t Corey Robin):
What are the demographics of the Macaulay students? The Macaulay Honors College believes that it is "rewarded them [the students] for their academic excellence." The first paragraph also suggests that the Macaulay students are among "the newest generation of Americans", meaning immigrants. I don't doubt many immigrants and first generation college students are in the Macaulay Honors College, but I'd like to know the exact percentage.
The idea of an affordable public institution educating the best and the brightest immigrants who may not be able to go to a private institution is a noble one, but is it actually true? Or are the best and brightest students selected for the college culled from those who attended very good public or private high schools and already have a leg up on their less well prepared peers? If that scenario is the case, then it is cruel to suggest that those who are selected for Macaulay "earned a place in it" and those who are not admitted are undeserving when in fact larger socio-economic factors are at work. Also, it would be a case of the rich getting richer. Again, some hard data might shed light on the situation.
What is the criteria for admission to the Macaulay Honors College and how is recruitment handled? I am new to the CUNY system, having just finished my first year of teaching here, but I noticed several inconsistencies regarding admission to the college. A student told me when he applied to Brooklyn College, he never heard about the Macaulay Honors College nor did he see an application for it. I also encountered in my first year of teaching, a large number of very talented students who were not in the Honors College. Why weren't they recruited to be in Macaulay?
After my first semester of teaching, I received an email from the Macaulay staff asking me to recommend students who might benefit from the college within a college. I sent several recommendations. But there was no similar email after my second semester of teaching even though I had several outstanding students I would have recommended.
Who is teaching the Macaulay Honors College classes? In the second paragraph of the draft oped above, Petraeus refers to "the talented faculty, staff, and students" of Macaulay. Many adjuncts teach in the Macaulay Honors College. What percentage of their faculty are adjuncts? In asking this question, I am not suggesting that adjuncts are not talented or inferior to permanent teaching faculty. I am suggesting that adjuncts are over-worked by virtue of their heavy course-loads because they are underpaid (around $3,000 per course at CUNY). The great general will be rubbing elbows with adjuncts within the Macaulay Honors College who are working without the same resources and commitment made by CUNY to permanent faculty members, much less to celebrity hires. It seems incongruous that the prestigious Macaulay Honors College would be staffed by an unknown number exploited adjuncts who teach CUNY's most favored students.
Where is the financing coming from for the Honors College? The conventional wisdom within CUNY is that Macaulay is funded primarily by private donations. Is that true? What percentage of its operations are funded privately and publicly? I learned that tuition for students is not really "free". The college requires students to apply for financial aid as a condition for receiving their scholarship and then has the students sign the financial aid over to Macaulay. Is it really a scholarship then and is tuition "free"? Many students I went to grad school with took out financial aid to live on, not just to pay tuition with. Does Macaulay take all the financial aid the student obtains? What are the students living on then? There was talk about a stipend. How much is the stipend?
If we can get answers to these questions, General Petraeus has indeed done a great service to the CUNY system.