Some defenders of CUNY’s hiring of General David Petraeus are claiming that it is a worthwhile investment. The 10 to 20 students in his seminar will profit from his elite contacts. The networking. The access. The all in.
Even if this were true, it’s an expensive proposition. CUNY educates some 200,000 students a year. Spending $150,000 to reach .005 to .01% of them seems like a bad use of resources.
But more important, it signals how much our understanding of public education, and its role in the larger culture, has changed.
Here is just a small list of CUNY alumni from over the years: Bella Azbug, Audre Lorde, Colin Powell, Irving Howe, Ruby Dee, Shirley Chisholm, Paddy Chayevsky, Nathan Glazer, Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Oscar Hijuelos, Sonia Sanchez, Zero Mostel, Walter Mosley, Felix Frankfurter, Jonas Salk, Robert Scheer.
And yet somehow these men and women managed to make their way into the world without the benefit of an overpaid adjunct.
The mission of CUNY is to educate hundreds of thousands—not 10 or 15—of poor, working class, and immigrant students, to propel them into a culture that they then transform. Historically, it managed to do that without celebrity hires. That some now think that can only be done by showering money on a man rather than investing in an institution speaks volumes about the way we live now.