Professor Petraeus and Other Higher-Education Stunts

When I first heard that David Petraeus was going to make $200,000 for teaching a course and giving a couple of lectures at the City University of New York, I was not indignant. If anything I was surprised by the controversy. Compensation of greater amounts, for lesser amounts of teaching, is routinely granted to people of far lesser renown at many leading research universities where teaching takes a back seat to research and reputational enhancement. What would the public say if it learned about the $300,000 professors at, say, the University of Texas with lighter loads?

CUNY, which in the face of public outrage now says it will pay the former general just $1, was no doubt trying to seize on the Petraeus name for publicity. But universities, largely unaccountable to anyone, routinely waste buckets of money on all sorts of things. (My university, Ohio University, recently paid $50,000 to move a tree, rather than $1,000 to cut the tree down and plant a couple of small new ones.) The package offered to Petraeus was not overly outrageous when viewed in light of the fact that universities often pay famous outside speakers $25,000, $50,000 or even more to give a single lecture.

The hiring of celebrity professors to teach very light loads for a short period is fairly commonplace. The celebrities feel they are gaining gravitas — viewed as serious intellectuals rather than as mere actors or politicians. The school can brag about the important, even transformational, figure in its midst. The money isn’t bad either, even for a celebrity. To be sure, the students may pay a bit more in tuition fees, but that is what federal student loans are for, aren’t they?

Thus, Oprah Winfrey once team-taught a course with her boyfriend at Northwestern. Tony Blair had a prestigious appointment at Yale, and Kevin Spacey taught theater at Oxford. When author Salman Rushdie became a writer-in-residence at Emory, the school not only got a well-known author, but its library also acquired his archives. UCLA once hired Placido Domingo as an adjunct music professor. I have to believe the publicity dimension was especially important in that one.

To me the issue is less about David Petraeus, who is a Ph.D. with a brilliant career, than it is about the ability of colleges to throw around money with seemingly no negative consequences. Universities are sheltered from the real world by a combination of government subsidies, institutional independence protected by laws and custom, and very limited internal scrutiny by governing boards.

When public colleges heavily dependent on taxpayers support expensive celebrity visits, legitimate questions can be raised about whether public funds have been misallocated. But arguably the same questions apply to so-called “private” schools, which get huge benefits from federal research overhead funds, student loans that allow them to jack up tuition fees, and tax-exempt status that enhances institutional income and wealth. The real issue, then, is should universities be more accountable to the broader public?

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Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder , a regular contributor to Bloomberg View, directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and teaches economics at Ohio University.