Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Nice Work If You Can Get It.

Links regarding David Petraeus's offer from CUNY to teach a course for $200,000.  (Or, maybe, now $150,000.  Who knows.)

Gawker has a lot of info
A letter from a New York Assembyman to CUNY
Money has some nice info
Even the Chronicle of Higher Education weighs in.

Here's an interesting question for discussion and debate.  CUNY apparently is offering that this is OK because it won't be paid for by taxpayer money, but by gift money from a donor.  It seems like this approach -- getting gift money specifically for a celebrity lecturer -- has high risk for unseemly outcomes.  On the other hand, where exactly is the line? 

[A local example:  Harvard has a fairly new well-loved class on Science and Cooking, where celebrity chefs come in and give lectures, and I'm sure SEAS has gone out to raise money especially for innovative teaching such as this, if not for this class directly.  On the other hand, we don't pay the chefs 6-figure salaries.  In fact, I'm not even sure we pay them (or perhaps we pay a nominal honorarium) -- the chefs, from what I hear, are excited to come teach students.  So it's not the same sort of thing, but it perhaps gives ideas that the lines could get blurry here fairly quickly.]   


Anonymous said...

I don't see what the big deal is. He's teaching a 1-1 load for a year, plus a couple of lectures on campus, for $150000. Thats probably the same as your teaching load for less salary than you make.

Sure, he doesn't have research responsibilities, but hey, he was the director of the CIA.

Darf Ferrara said...

That's terrible. That's money should have been spent on the football coach.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Anon 1: To be clear, if you read my post, I was not myself making an argument here that I objected to what he was being paid. (I'm remaining silent on that issue.) However, certainly other pages I linked to did object.

Anonymous said...

You just posted about it on a blog. You are not remaining silent. Hell, the blog is called my BIASED coin. Not My News Aggregator.

And your parenthetical remarks do take a stance. What you should be saying is that teaching a class is not "three hours of work per week" as the articles you link to continually espouse. As evidence, read the many many posts written here about how hard teaching is.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Anon #4: Please calm down. Your comment was angry enough it got marked as spam.

To be clear, often in this blog I have pointed to things I think would be of interest without offering commentary. As I'm busy this week, that was the case here. (For example, I'll be offline the rest of the day.)

I agree with your point that teaching a class does not necessarily amount to three hours of work per week, and I am glad you made that point. It's not clear exactly how much time is expected of Petraeus, however; he was apparently offered significant (graduate student) help in teaching his course. I definitely agree that taking salary and dividing by 3 hours per week to come up with a number is an unfair exercise without further substantiating information, and I expect is just unfair.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1 here!

I did not mean to imply that you personally were against this salary.

But it seems quite modest to me and I don't understand the outrage. Its about an average salary for a full professor (below average at Harvard), and Petraeus is obviously an extremely above average draw.

Harry Lewis said...

At one level the problem is pretty simple. If universities become reliant on private funding sources to pay for their high profile instructors, the selection of instructors may become biased toward the the preferences of moneyed interests. At some very broad level that is always a worry, especially in private institutions (cf. the $20 million Yale returned to the Bass family). This is one of the things that makes presidents' jobs, and those of their development officers, difficult -- begging for money and not surrendering "editorial" control in the process. Publics should be more immune from these pressures, but for various reasons they are not any more.

At a deeper level it troubles me at least that so little sense survives that academics are engaged in a kind of service activity, striving with humility to uphold sone sacred, extra-material ideals. The pursuit of money has legitimated lucrative but dubious outside activities that should lead unbiased observers to wonder whether we professors really think we are in the Veritas business any more. See this take on Niall Ferguson's latest book, for example:
or Larry Summers going from the Harvard presidency to chairing (while still a University Professor) the advisory board of a for-profit entity that styles itself as in competition with Harvard.

We in SEAS are not immune from these issues, heaven knows, since we are by definition tied up intimately with the "outside world," but I don't think the Cooking class is an apt point of comparison; the chefs donate their time.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Harry --

Thanks for stating the issues much better than I was clearly doing.
As you say, "begging for money and not surrendering "editorial" control in the process" is indeed the central question. To be clear, it's not clear if that exactly describe the Petraeus case, but to me it definitely raises this challenging issue.

Agreed that the Cooking class example isn't particularly apt; for me, the question was whether it could be viewed as a first step toward more "celebrity instructors" driving the curriculum (with potentially more extreme issues regarding payment), but at SEAS we still are, I think, far away from any slippery slope. Your correction was instructional.

Anonymous said...

I think the comparisons some of the other anonymous posters are making to professor salaries are a bit disingenuous, as a full professor has duties beyond teaching a single class.

That amount for teaching a single class is certainly unusual, though definitely potentially justifiable given the context.

Anonymous said...

Michael - I think that Anon #1 and #4 (same person?) are rightfully annoyed because your post does have a "holier than thou" feel about it, and so do many of your other blog posts. If only you stepped down from your high horse ...

Harry Lewis said...

I suspect that most computer science professors are actually on the holy side of the ledger, since they could make more money in private industry or in consulting. The academy provides them unmatched research freedom of thought and speech, and they think it is rather a privilege to teach. They tend to value those things pretty highly. Traditionally society has accorded a certain amount of respect to people who make those choices, which are not economically rational if they are doing their jobs properly.

I personally don't fault Petraeus for taking the money, though I would fault the university that hired him. The Harvard cases I cited, Ferguson and Summers, are of a different kind, and yes, Mitzenmacher is holier than they are.

Harry Lewis said...

This responds to MM's response to me.

Surely the world of celebrity instructors is with us already, but not in the form you are worrying about here, that is, adjuncts who are household names. (We use our Commencement speakers for that category.) The bigger worry, and the one that is more relevant locally, are the professors who are seen as bringing glory to the institution for fame that has little to do with their scholarly or teaching work. I mentioned two, but there are more. Junior faculty may rationally take the lesson from these examples that celebrity (not just among one's scholarly peers and institutional colleagues) will make a positive impression on tenure committees and the president and provost. Follow that path, and there is little reason to waste time, for example, reading senior theses.

Laura said...

I don't have enough information to say whether hiring a professor to teach a single course is CUNY's best use of $200K.

But I'm not comfortable with describing Petraeus as a "celebrity". He has an MPA and a PhD in international relations from Princeton and was a professor at USMA. That's not a joke CV for a faculty position, even at Harvard.

Harvard seems to actively support the many faculty that take leave to hold high-level positions in government (for very good pay), despite having ongoing commitments to courses, PhD students, etc.

It seems to be somewhat a double standard when a flow of people and ideas in one direction is good, while a flow in the opposite direction is somehow inappropriate, or more motivated by money than service.

Harry Lewis said...

That is an interesting point; you made me stop and think.

While granting that these things are a matter of interpretation and judgment, in theory those people who take time off from Harvard to work in government are doing so "for the purpose of national service or some other reason of strong importance to the country." It's supposed to be a sacrifice, not profiteering, one that the university allows for up to two years, unlike normal leaves, for the benefit of the nation. So I guess we could ask whether the terms of service of those who have taken leave from their Harvard faculty roles to go to Washington recently are in fact a sacrifice or are mere profiteering, as you suggest, and then we could also ask whether Petraeus's arrangement with CUNY is in the same spirit.

Of course if we ask too many questions like that, we might decide, as I suggested in another comment, that there is no honor in any of these things any more; they are all fee-for-service cash transactions and we should stop kidding ourselves about being engaged in some higher calling.