Stars and Czars

“The truth is that I could have had gotten more money or more prestigious places.” So says David Patraeus, who has diffused a controversy about his pay for teaching a couple of courses (with numerous teaching assistants) at a City University of New York campus by refusing compensation of possibly $200,000 in favor of a symbolic dollar-a-year.

We at CUNY doff our hats, bowing and scraping before our betters. Thank you, General Patraeus, for condescending to enter our poor home–even though you could get so much more at a vastly superior institution. You are a star; we’re just peons, part of the 99%.

The Times article quoting Patraeus goes on to point out:

The average salary for full-time faculty members is $89,768. Adjunct professors, who currently teach more than half of CUNY’s courses, get just a few thousand dollars per course.

Even that average is a little deceiving. Because of a hiring freeze lasting almost two decades and ending not much more than ten years ago, CUNY has a large number of faculty at the top end of the pay scale. Few of the hires of recent years have climbed so high, making the average something of a distortion of the real salary picture.

At the same time, the amount paid to most adjuncts (and Patraeus will be an adjunct) is close to exploitation. The adjunct, it was once assumed, was either a graduate student or someone working as a full-time professional elsewhere, just picking up a few extra bucks. Today, many adjuncts are really full-time teachers, but ones forced to work at a number of different schools, perhaps teaching six courses in a semester at two or three different institutions, probably making a total of something like $20,000 for the term (generally not much more than $3000 a course).

That CUNY administrators did not consider how bad it would look, in such a situation, to hire a celebrity adjunct at what may be thirty times the rate of pay of current adjuncts is not, unfortunately, surprising. It is simply another sign of our worship of the successful media star, worship paid at the expense of the real mission of the institution.

It is also a sign of our cultural stepping away from belief in democracy–that is, in belief that the people as a whole can do better than the individual. It is a sign of the assumption that those at the top know best, and that others from the elite brought in will do best. Hiring Patraeus would have been a “coup” for the responsible CUNY administrators–if the brouhaha over his pay had not erupted. Making a dozen or so talented adjuncts full-time would never have been seen the same way–though the effect on education would be much better.

The mentality of the administrators goes far beyond Patraeus. It is another example of the “star and czar” mentality of American leaders today that shows up all over the place. The whole new Michigan system of removing local governance in favor of Emergency Managers is a sure sign of distrust of democracy and its messy solutions. So is the removal of the board of trustees at the City College of San Francisco, replacing it with a “special trustee,” a lone ranger who can swoop in and set things to rights.

Trust in the return of the true king, Richard Coeur de Lion, who can sweep away all of the corruption of King John is admission that we don’t believe that we can govern ourselves. After all, it was under King John that the Magna Carta was signed.

But that seems to be the way we are going.

Prince David Patraeus can come in and make CUNY better.

Or can he? We can certainly welcome him as he joins us among the CUNY faculty, but he is really only one teacher among many, and should not be treated like a savior. Nor should be Michigan’s Emergency Managers. Nor should be the CCSF special trustee.

Democracy depends on shared governance, not on stars, not on czars. Many of us, especially our leaders, no longer believe that, unfortunately. Only the elite can solve problems, can make things better. That they condescend to join us, even for a short time, even just to teach one class, means that we should throw roses and money at their feet.

Patraeus, at least, has the sense to recognize how ridiculous his offered payment was. I hope the CUNY administrators who offered it will wake up to that fact, too.

I hope that our whole country can. The days of stars and czars should be long in the past. Let’s work to put the stars and czars in the past once more, as those have done who made known the insulting (to other adjuncts, at least, if not to all CUNY faculty and to faculty members everywhere) offer to Patraeus.

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