Earlier we learned that retired General and former CIA Director David Petraeus would be joining the CUNY faculty. Then we shortly thereafter learned that he wouldn't really be ALL IN at CUNY and would instead be jetting back and forth between CUNY and USC and has apparently been offered a fellowship at Harvard. Then comes the news this week that for teaching 2 seminars at the Macaulay Honors College, he will be handsomely over-compensated at a rate of $150K to $200K. (For some perspective, our adjuncts make about $3,000 a course.)
Some might object to me comparing David Petraeus to a typical academic adjunct and they would point to the prestige and alleged public profile raising ability of Petraeus. Maybe. But the operative concept taught in every intro level economics course and still in play here is "opportunity cost". The term put succinctly refers to the alternatives of how the resource could be used. Instead of spending the resource (in this case, not just his Petraeus' $150K to $200K salary but the research funds, travel funds, and Teaching Assistants) on the thing it was spent on, what else could have been done with the funds.
Not all of our classrooms have smart-classroom technology (wired with equipment that would allow the instructor to project PowerPoint/stream internet video etc.), and my colleagues who don't hold a named endowed chair like me have very limited travel and research funds to carry out their research. Many of my Brooklyn College students cannot afford to do an internship that would help them build connections and further their careers because they simply cannot work for free. Bringing our CUNY Brooklyn College physical infrastructure up to the smart-classroom standards that are industry wide, increasing faculty's research/travel funds, and funding scholarships for student internships are but three things that the resources to hire Petraeus could have been spent on. Those investments would have long term effects. What will this "investment" in Petraeus who will barely on campus for 2 seminars yield?
And I'm not even getting into how the use of these resources clashes with the whole notion of a public institution with the mission of educating students with modest means. My colleague Corey Robin has already covered that angle and so has NYS Assemblyman Kieran Michael Lalor, a Republican, Marine, and Iraqi war veteran. In a letter to CUNY Chancellor William Kelly, Lalor writes:
High-priced celebrity hires are not the right fit for a public university. Whether it is $150,000 or $200,000 to teach a single class a semester, this is not a good investment. Taxpayers fund CUNY to provide an affordable education for New Yorkers. Paying $150,000 to David Petraeus to teach a three-credit seminar for two semesters contributes little to an affordable, quality education. Taxpayers and students both deserve better. While Petraeus might offer some glamour, that alone does not fit with the University’s mission.
It is also not quite accurate to claim that Petraeus’ salary will not be funded by taxpayers. CUNY is a public university. According to the CUNY spokesman, Petraeus will be paid from the University’s Research Foundation. However, there are no grants or donations specifically earmarked by donors to pay for Petraeus. That means the salary will come from the Foundation’s general funds. Money sources are fungible in a large institution and when CUNY takes funds from one place, it affects other funds, specifically tax dollars and student tuition payments. This hire definitely involves tax dollars and public spending.
I don't know from what funds, public or private, Petraeus is being paid. But from an opportunity cost standpoint, it really does not matter. Finite resources are being expended. What else could CUNY, perpetually cash strapped, and with a mission of educating middle class and working class students, spend $150,000 to $200,000 on instead of Petraeus?