NYS Assemblyman (and Iraq War Vet) Blasts CUNY Over Petraeus: Says Administrators Are Lying

CUNY administrators are coming under increasing fire for their decision to hire General David Petraeus to teach one course next year for anywhere from $150,000 to $200,000. The American Association of University Professors has denounced the decision. And now Republican State Assemblyman Kieran Michael Lalor, a Marine vet who fought in the Iraq War, has issued a scorching letter to CUNY interim chancellor William Kelly.

Lalor focuses on two issues. First, he charges CUNY with dishonesty. When Gawker first broke the story of Petraeus’s salary, it reported that he was going to be getting $200k. That report was based on Freedom of Information Law documents Gawker had obtained from CUNY. Within hours, however, CUNY announced that Petraeus was only going to get $150k and that part of his earnings would go to charity.

As Lalor points out, there’s something fishy about the timing of that announcement.

In an email time-stamped two-and-a-half hours after the Gawker story was published, the University Vice Chancellor writes to Petraeus to “memorialize” discussions between the University and Petraeus agreeing to a $150,000 salary, of which Petraeus would donate a portion to charity. The University is telling the public that Petraeus agreed to this different arrangement before the story went public out of the goodness of his heart. However, when the University spokesman spoke with my staff, it became clear that there was no written documentation of this change prior to the publication of the Gawker story. That’s strange given the fact that there are numerous back-and-forth emails discussing the salary written before the Gawker story. All of those emails conclude that the salary will be $200,000 and mention nothing about charitable donations.

In no uncertain terms, Lalor accuses the university and Petraeus of scrambling after the Gawker story broke to make the salary issue seem more palatable.

It appears that Petraeus and the University are being dishonest with the public in an attempt to save face. Rather than admitting a mistake, they are claiming they never made the mistake. I am skeptical to say the least. I am formally requesting that the University provide the public with any written documentation to prove the claim that the salary cut came before the public criticism. If that is unavailable, I am asking the University to rescind its offer to Petreaus. A troubling pattern of dishonesty has emerged around him. If there was a cover-up here, Petraeus is not the right fit for the University.

The second issue Lalor raises is: What in the world is CUNY, a cash-strapped public institution with a mission to educate poor and working-class students, doing with a celebrity hire like this? Couldn’t that $150k or $200k be better spent elsewhere? Again, Lalor:

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 have no idea if Lalor is right about whether tax-payers are footing the bill for this celebrity hire or not. But let’s assume CUNY is securing private funds for it. Isn’t that in itself a terrible waste of resources? Private donations don’t just roll in; university fundraisers work and cultivate donors to make specific donations for earmarked funds. The notion that even one paid member of the university staff is working right now to secure private money to pay for this hire is itself a scandal.

It’s also indicative of a larger problem: CUNY is being run (into the ground) by a group of men and women with no sense of how to educate students, how to build (and pay) a first-class teaching staff, and how to manage a great public institution.

Update (July 3, 5 pm)

Apparently CUNY is now claiming that they have a letter, dated May 29, 2013, from Dean Kirschner to Petraeus, setting out the $150,000 salary. They’ve posted it on this website.

There’s just one problem: CUNY administrators have posted and taken down the letter twice. Right now, all I’m getting when I click on the link is an Error 404 message. And there’s still no time-stamped evidence to support their claim.

Another problem: if this letter had indeed been sent on May 29, why would Kirschner have needed to send an email with the new salary to Petraeus on July 1—after the Gawker story broke—”memorializing our discussions over the past few months”?


  1. Arthur Berney July 3, 2013 at 3:02 am | #

    I am a Professor Emeritus of Constitutional Law, among other courses, at Boston College Law School (BCLS). I was never paid as much for teaching as $150,000, let alone $200,000. I was a Co-Author of a Book on National Security Law, now in its 6th edition. Professors fulfill many other important duties, and in my case for example, with a grant from the Ford Foundation, I established, the first 80% credit course for students to engage in clinical education. And that was at a time that most Law faculties, including my own, opposed clinical education. I would venture to guess that today every accredited law school in the country offers clinical education courses. I am sure that most law schools invite practicing attorneys, who are experts in their fields, to teach a guest course. BCLS offered $10,000 to these experts for their courses.

    I speak from my experience at a law school, but I also know from teacher friends in undergraduate departments that their work is heavier than most graduate professors.

    If space allows, I will make one other point. My wife is the only member of her immediate family in Austria who survived the holocaust. After the war she joined her mother’s sister in the U.S. My wife spoke German and French and hardly a word of English. In one year of high school, and credits earned through tests, she was ready for College. The only college she could afford was one of the highly rated N.Y. City Colleges. In time she earned a Graduate Degree in Literature.

    Both my wife and I are OUTRAGED, that a disgraced General, would earn $150 – 200, 000.00 at CUNY, a City School.

  2. Peter Frase July 3, 2013 at 5:49 pm | #

    Reposting what I said at CT:

    I’m most interested in this:

    > 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.

    If this is true, it’s scandalous in itself, although not exactly for the reasons Lalor says. To clarify, the CUNY Research Foundation (RF) exists to manage the grants brought in by CUNY researchers, and it is the official employer of students and other non-faculty researchers who work on such grants. Despite the name (and despite the composition of its board), the RF is technically a private non-profit institution that is separate from CUNY itself.

    I’m a longtime RF employee, and I was on the committee that bargained a first contract between the Professional Staff Congress (the union that also represents CUNY faculty) and the RF, covering RF employees at several CUNY campuses. In those negotiations, it was routine for the RF representatives to claim that they had little ability to concede on our wage and benefits demands, because RF employees were paid out of grants that had been given to individual Principal Investigators and which were subject to various sponsor restrictions. We always assumed that the RF had significant amounts of disposable money that they skimmed off the grants as part of their “overhead” charges, but their finances are naturally quite opaque. But if they really do have hundreds of thousands of dollars lying around to give to David Petraeus, that could have paid for a substantial portion of the wage increases and health insurance contributions that we spent years fighting over at the negotiating table.

  3. Arnold Kawano July 5, 2013 at 6:13 pm | #

    The sad fact is that the U.S. has been committing war crimes for decades and genocide for centuries. The perpetrators of these crimes have been hired as professors in colleges, graduate schools and law schools for the same period of time. We need to oppose and replace the system that perpetrates these crimes for the benefit of the capitalist plutocrats in addition to this gift to war criminal Petraeus that is merely symptomatic of this system.

  4. Zujaja Tauqeer July 5, 2013 at 11:06 pm | #

    I’m going to have to disagree with the whole “CUNY’s job is to provide an affordable education to immigrants” criticism angle to the Petraeus hiring and the “it doesn’t matter if it’s donor-funded, that’s still diverting money from somewhere else” angle as well. (I’d like to acknowledge at the outset that I’m quite close to the issue having been a Macaulay student, later been an adjunct at CUNY, and having recently met Petraeus). Petraeus of course wasn’t hired for all of CUNY, only for Macaulay Honors College though he is doing some CUNY-at-large lectures etc. The very existence and promotion of Macaulay Honors College program, through massive private donations, for the last 10 years as “a magnet for the city’s finest students” casts doubt on the promotion of this issue as reflecting on CUNY, the “cash-strapped public institution with a mission to educate poor and working-class students”. Macaulay has thrived on selective donations, secured no doubt by Goldstein steering donors in a particular direction, for the benefit of a select group of students (who incidentally are not exempt from being poor, working class, and immigrants). The largest donation in CUNY’s history, $30 million by the Macaulays, was to buy a building near Lincoln Center for the benefit of Macaulay students and staff and instructors (though some of it did go to the endowment). Then, the students are provided free Macbook Pros, two advisors of their own at every campus, a whole college staff to themselves, $7500 in study grants over the course of their four years, stipends every term, and the perks go on and on. All of this (like Petraeus’ salary apparently) is donor-funded, and so would ostensibly also be subject to the same criticism that it is funneling donor resources away from adjunct pay/tuition for “poor immigrant students”/staff salaries/etc towards the benefit of Macaulay students alone.

    So a large part of the issue then is not about CUNY making a celebrity hire, but whether we have an ethical problem all along with a selective Macaulay Honors College existing that funnels donor resources away from CUNY at large to benefit a chosen group of students in a multitude of ways–one of which is the appointment of a “celebrity”. Macaulay students go on to other great universities and jobs, and the Honors College now provides CUNY with its greatest number of fellowship recipients year after year (again, too close to the issue but 2 out of 5 Rhodes in the history of CUNY are from Macaulay, despite it being only 10 years old). Macaulay has been hugely successful in motivating hundreds of the best and brightest of NYC every year to stay in CUNY and save boatloads on tuition to get a great education befitting their needs, while also contributing to their city and to the intellectual environment at CUNY. We take almost all our classes with other CUNY students so that the supposed ‘smart’ kids aren’t segregated from the supposed ‘poor, working class immigrants’ (which anyways is a trite and politicized characterization of CUNY students being thrown around with which I have quite a problem). Macaulay provides CUNY with a claim to an equitable education system in which there is a greater dissemination of ideas among people of different classes and life circumstances, while catering to the needs of students that can make so much more out of higher education and raise CUNY’s profile (and later give back to CUNY like William Macaulay himself). Many other criticisms are also there but these are the more ideological ones that I wanted to address. I believe the consumers and donors involved have the supreme right to decide whether a “celebrity hire” is something that Macaulay needs (and I find it ridiculous to believe that donors could be persuaded to part with such ridiculous sums of money against their will—they gave because they wanted to so why disrespect their choice, even if other choices were ostensibly there?). Perhaps then it is necessary to look at this from the prism of an elite school after all, with Macaulay being, in resources and student body make-up, an Ivy League caliber institution. And so if we get to the deeper criticism here, not wanting to funnel resources away from CUNY-at-large for the benefit of a select few, does this mean that next we’ll be trying to take away Macaulay which has been so successful and such a boon for CUNY?

    • Jen Gaboury (@jengaboury) July 7, 2013 at 11:49 am | #

      Ms. Tauqeer correctly points out that many of the objections in this situation call into question the rationale for the Macaulay Honors College in the first place (as I too suggested: http://pscbc.blogspot.com/2013/07/petraeus-at-cuny-roundup.html). I’d like to see the Honors College shut down. I have no doubt that it’s, as indicated, a “boon” for its students (some of whom I teach and advise at Hunter College). If you’d like to go to a school where private donors make gifts to support your education, there’s a place for that: it’s called private college. Many of them are excellent.

      CUNY’s mission is to serve students of New York City and it’s an abrogation of that duty to siphon off resources to a select few – to direct millions and millions of dollars to just 400 students when there are close to 500,000 in the neglected and underfunded CUNY system.
      I’ve thought quite a bit about the Macauley building; it’s just a 20-minute walk from the dangerously overcrowded West Building where I spend most of my time at Hunter. Doubt it’s dangerous? Come and ride the escalators at a peak hour in a building never intended to accommodate a share of Hunter’s now 20,000 students. One of my worst moments as a teacher was watching something that happened about six years ago in a summer class. A pipe was leaking in the ceiling, an all too common occurrence, and a panel suddenly gave way and pieces of soggy tile and foul smelling water poured down on a student and all her things. I will never forget the look on her face just after it happened – not only shock, but the humiliation and hurt that seemed to ask: don’t I deserve better?

      I don’t begrudge Honors College students the resources they get. It’s that I’d like to see those things for all students.

  5. Corey Robin July 8, 2013 at 3:48 pm | #

    NYC Councilman Brad Lander has organized a petition drive to get CUNY to rescind its $150,000 boondoggle offer to Petraeus. Please sign the petition and share it widely. http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/cuny-petraeus.fb28?source=s.icn.fb&r_by=8138536

Leave a Reply