On Corruption at CUNY

The New York Times reports this morning:

The City University of New York is investigating whether a recent $500,000 donation intended to bolster the humanities and arts at its flagship school may have been improperly diverted.

The inquiry was prompted by senior faculty members at the school, the City College of New York, who learned that an account that should have contained roughly $600,000, thanks to the donation, had just $76. Faculty members asked City College officials for an explanation, but were met with “silence, delay and deflection” before appealing directly the university’s chancellor, James B. Milliken. Mr. Milliken then asked Frederick P. Schaffer, the university’s general counsel and senior vice chancellor for legal affairs, to look into the “the expenditure of monies donated,” according to documents obtained by The New York Times.

This is part of a followup to a piece the Times ran last spring, which I blogged about, and which claimed:

Documents obtained by The Times indicated that the college’s 21st Century Foundation paid for some of Ms. Coico’s personal expenses, such as fruit baskets, housekeeping services and rugs, when she took office in 2010. The foundation was then reimbursed for more than $150,000 from CUNY’s Research Foundation. That has raised eyebrows among governance experts, because such funds are typically earmarked for research.

It’s unclear what the $600,000 went to, and who made the decision. Hence, the investigation, which involves federal prosecutors. But at a minimum, it seems clear that the money was used for purposes it was not earmarked for.

I used to think that corruption was just one of those do-gooder good-government-type concerns, a trope neoliberal IMF officials wielded in order to force capitalism down the throat of developing countries. After years of hearing about stuff like this at CUNY, and in some cases seeing much worse, I’ve come to realize just how corrosive and politically debilitating corruption is. It’s like a fungus or a parasite. It attaches itself to a host, a body that is full of possibility and promise, a body that contains so much of what we hope for, and it feeds off that body till it dies.

One of the reasons why, politically, it’s worse when corruption happens at an institution like CUNY or in a labor union—as opposed to the legalized or even illegal corruption that goes on at the highest reaches of the political economy—is that these are, or are supposed to be, sites of opposition to all that is wrong and wretched in the world. These are institutions that are supposed to remove the muck of ages.

It’s hard enough to believe in that kind of transformative work, and those kinds of transformative institutions, under the best of conditions. But when corruption becomes a part of the picture, it’s impossible.

Corruption is pure poison. It destroys everything. Even—or especially—the promise of that transformation.


  1. s. wallerstein August 30, 2016 at 9:28 am | #

    So true what you say. Corruption is like Stalinism, a poison that destroys
    possibilities of liberation.

    The problem seems to be that within the context of a neoliberal society, all of us are infected with neoliberal values to some extent and thus, when the possibility of pocketing a bit of money arises, most of us are tempted. Some give in to temptation, some don’t.

  2. Thomas L. Dumm August 30, 2016 at 9:30 am | #

    Stealing from funds earmarked for the humanities? Talk about insult to injury, given how the humanities are the most underfunded disciplines in all of higher education.

  3. A social scientist August 30, 2016 at 10:41 am | #

    “I used to think that corruption was just one of those do-gooder good-government-type concerns, a trope neoliberal IMF officials wielded in order to force capitalism down the throat of developing countries.”


    I expect this from the people in, say, Lit departments, but no political scientist with any actual or scholarly knowledge of how politics and the economy operate in developing — and quite a few developed — countries thinks this way. Just another example of the poor benighted political theorist.

    • xenon2 August 30, 2016 at 12:41 pm | #

      “Just another example of the poor benighted political theorist”

      Let’s have your take on the way “politics and the economy operate”?

      Please be short, have a hard time reading long pieces.

    • Bart August 30, 2016 at 3:20 pm | #

      Just ask Yeltsin about the job the IMF did to Russia.

    • Brett August 30, 2016 at 3:50 pm | #

      I can see why he might have believed that corruption is over-stated, although he was wrong. Corruption really was used for a rationale for a lot of anti-democratic reforms, like voter registration and more.

    • xenon2 August 30, 2016 at 8:27 pm | #

      “the corporatization of our colleges and universities”


    • KM August 31, 2016 at 2:08 pm | #

      Wow, what a pompous twit. Let the benighted hail the glorious “empirical” political “scientists” doing their ultra-rigorous regressions on convenience samples. And let us all bow to that distinguished tradition that bequeathed us Bates’s States and Markets as a classic of social-science research.

  4. kia (@pocojump) August 30, 2016 at 6:35 pm | #

    when I was in grad school at UC Santa Barbara in the 1980s the Chancellor, Robert Huttenback, was convicted of embezzling nearly $200,000 from the University. He didn’t like living in the on-campus residence so he moved out and bought a place on Santa Barbara’s Riviera–in the foothills. The ~$200k was spent on kitchen renovations, and he tried to make the case (during the investigation) that the University should pay it because he was entertaining donors at his house. He stayed on in the job for almost a year after he had been indicted, I mean while the case was preparing for trial. He had very powerful friends. At the time it was a big scandal. I mean part of what was scandalous then was not so much the crime but the expectations with which he had come into the job. I think in this respect he was the first of a wave, in which the professional-class administrators expect to be treated like CEOs–because of course some of them are in fact CEOs. (Huttenback came not from business but from CalTech but his particular qualification for the job was his talent for schmoozing with plutocrats). For these administrators the additional expense of keeping up their status among potential donors and possible suppliers of more lucrative employment, board seats, and who knows what other perks of being in the club, must be met by the institution. These extra-budgetary funds are particular susceptible of this kind of corruption–they are like a slush fund. As colleges increasingly lose state funding, they find themselves under pressure to recruit exactly these people–winners!

  5. b. August 30, 2016 at 11:52 pm | #

    The Clinton campaign, in a nutshell. The Democratic Party, in a nutshell. The “campaign to remove money from politics”, financed by millionaire money laundered in a Victory Fund, or a Foundation, or whatever other vehicle can be found – to reverse Citizens United by means of a constitutional amendment.

    One aspect of corruption: leviathan, too, rots from the head. Kunstler, closet reactionary that he is, has that one right: Anything goes, nothing matters.

  6. mark August 31, 2016 at 5:08 am | #

    “The sweat shall trickle down that brow no more.”

    (Henry Brougham against Speemhamland and in favour of the New Poor Law and its workhouse system, Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People, p593).

    Lord Brougham also led an inquiry 1818-37 investigating the misuse of public funds, which started with the examination of educational charities.

    The politics of Old corruption has always been Janus-faced.

  7. Aaron Dellutri (@AaronMDellutri) August 31, 2016 at 9:11 am | #

    I used to think the same thing about corruption, that it was nothing but a buzzword or scam used by neoliberals to privatize things. But of course, as you’ve demonstrated, the truth is worse: corruption is real and that’s why the neoliberal scam works so well. Because why would people want to protect something that is already shit?

    “The truth told with bad intent Beats all the lies you can invent”
    -William Blake

    • Jeff August 31, 2016 at 10:03 am | #

      Believing that corruption was a buzz word or scam used by neo-liberals (as apparently you and Mr. Robin did) is the privilege of living in a low corruption country. Try living in a high corruption country before or after structural adjustment and the idea of a neoliberal conspiracy will go right out the window.Corruption in parts of the world where i have worked has taken a mighty toll on the poor and was and is real and destructive. Not everything nor every rhetorical move is a neoliberal invention.

      • KM August 31, 2016 at 3:33 pm | #

        the privilege of living in a low corruption country

        Like, say, the United States of America?

        • J. Otto Pohl September 2, 2016 at 10:12 am | #

          Compared to Kyrgyzstan, Ghana, or Iraq it is.

          • KM September 2, 2016 at 2:43 pm | #

            (1) States like these three routinely get attention in the political-science corruption literature. The United States does not, despite fairly jaw-dropping levels of political corruption for anyone with eyes … like the American electorate in this election cycle. That is curious. Actually, not so much. I’ll consider taking the literature on political corruption seriously when it has the self-awareness to start systematically examining the home turf. Value-freedom in the social sciences, my derrière.

            (2) Iraq. Ironic example. The very direct and active role that the United States government played in creating the conditions for massive and endemic corruption in Iraq is not, of course, noted in your comment.

            (3) Personally I highly doubt that there’s any analytical utility to treating these as straightforwardly ordinal (let alone “quantitative”) across-the-board, free-standing comparisons. Of course, the assumption that such comparisons are natural and automatic are par for the course in a discipline rife with the kind of scientistic delusions of grandeur betrayed by our anonymous “Social Scientist” above.

          • J. Otto Pohl September 3, 2016 at 12:41 am | #


            I chose those three examples because they are places I have lived and worked recently. Since I live in the KRG region of Iraq the US intervention greatly improved things here.

  8. jonnybutter August 31, 2016 at 2:06 pm | #

    I too am a little surprised by CR’s former conception of corruption.

    Reactionary and neoliberal uses of ‘corruption’ as a trope have long b similar. But it is also true both a.) that corruption is used as an excuse to privatize, and, b.) that more, not less, overall corruption is the result – it’s the whole point. What matters is who defines what ‘corruption’ is. In the present formulation, if workers or small time pols get some gravy, that’s corruption; if wealth and power get massive breaks, that’s not corruption, but just the ‘natural’ order of things. Viz, the old saying ‘Steal a little, go to jail; steal a lot, become king’. Reactionaries like to go ahead and make corruption frankly legal; liberals don’t really have a problem with it being legal (especially if those crazy reactionaries are the ones responsible), but are too phony-pious to feel ‘comfortable’ being overt about it. So they light one candle and pretend they are helping. ‘Micro finance’! Hilariously awful.

  9. jonnybutter August 31, 2016 at 2:49 pm | #

    Hasten to add that corruption is enabled by reducing the term to a strictly monetary sense, when corruption is actually not about money per se, but rather about disintegration, rot, etc.

  10. Dean C. Rowan August 31, 2016 at 10:28 pm | #

    In another context, there is this from Richard Sennett, The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life (1970):

    “I do not intend to argue that we ought to increase graft anew, though it strikes me that a little humane graft is a good thing. But we ought to look at why machine politics came to power in the past, and salvage the good mixed in with the greed and viciousness of those regimes. To destroy the political club structures, as the middle-class reformers have succeeded in doing in many cities, simply cuts off much of the body politic from power and increases the ‘alienation’ of these voters—hence their tendency to turn to messianic solutions from the far Right.”

    I’ve always gotten a cynical kick out of that “a little humane graft is a good thing.” It is, as Sennett notes, a response to “a terrible paradox,” namely, that the solution sought to purify graft ends up replacing political machines with bureaucracy that entirely disengages “the little-voter” from the political process. Thus, Sennett also worries that corruption is a “do-gooder good-government-type concern.”

    There are good reasons to distinguish academia, which, after all, chooses selectively when to prefer democracy. Even so, I imagine a little humane graft is a good thing, on occasion. The NYT article suggests this is not one of those occasions.

  11. Aaron Dellutri (@AaronMDellutri) September 3, 2016 at 11:45 am | #

    To destroy the political club structures, as the middle-class reformers have succeeded in doing in many cities, simply cuts off much of the body politic from power and increases the ‘alienation’ of these voters …

    In the same way that a “rule-book slowdown“, where workers follow rules to the letter, can punish industries.

  12. Robert Sparlng September 20, 2016 at 9:41 am | #

    I think you were right in your original belief that corruption discourse often serves as an ideological weapon and you are also correct in your revised belief that we cannot afford to abandon the concept. (I discuss these ambivalences around the use of the term in my current manuscript ‘The Discourse of Political Corruption’.)

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