Petraeus and the Military-University-Corporate Complex

General David Petraeus’ abortive campaign to seize the sinecure of a $200,000 teaching deal at the City University of New York serves as a reminder of a seemingly unchanging fact of American political life: nothing quite shows your membership in the elite like a propensity for unabashed rent-seeking.

It also serves to illustrate the truth of that old Biblical adage, the Matthew Principle, already well-known to those that haunt the halls of academia: those that have, get more.

In the face of a barrage of unfavorable reactions from faculty, press and New York state assemblymen alike, Petraeus magnanimously agreed to drop his salary from $200,000 to $1. This gesture, however, did nothing to dispel the impression of him as an elitist blowhard. Besides, the terms of his deal are still enough to induce apoplexy in the average faculty member—a population that includes poorly paid and overworked adjuncts.

Nothing quite shows your membership in the American elite like a propensity for unabashed rent-seeking.

Petraeus will teach a class that meets once a week, with enrollment limited to 16 Honors College students, and assisted by two graduate students, with three Harvard graduate students to aid him in “assembling” the class syllabus. A reasonable inference to draw is that the general will have his lecture notes and slides prepared—and his students assignments graded—for him. Showing up once a week to read bullet points off a screen should not be too hard. The general might have left the Army, but he seems to have taken his headquarters staff with him, complete with orderlies, adjutants and batmen.

None of this will have come as a surprise for Petraeus. Indeed, he would have expected it.

For even as he packed away his uniforms, medals, and photo albums, and disentangled himself from the muscular arms of Paula Broadwell, he would have been well aware that riches awaited him on “civvy street,” with its speaking engagements and consultancy gigs, that the same revolving door which sees Goldman Sachs executives and Capitol Hill residents exchange positions every few years would soon send him on a magical money-making tour, that in a country perpetually engaged in wars and dominated by a military-industrial complex, no one is quite as likely to secure a comfortable post-retirement income as a general. (Some sources estimate that a four-star retired general like Petraeus, besides drawing a pension of $220,000 a year, could also command up to $100,000 to $200,000 for each public speaking appearance.)

Corporate America and the military have always reinforced each other: the military borrows the language of corporate and consultant America, and vice-versa. Their jargons mingle, and now, so do their personnel.

In his endeavors, Petraeus was ably aided and abetted by CUNY administration, whose members would have realized that if they are to find a spot for their snouts in the trough that Petraeus will soon be feeding from, they need to dispense a few favors themselves.

This is the same administration whose Board of Trustees regularly votes on tuition increases for its students and often keeps its full-time and part-time faculty working without a contract but which decided to award its retiring Chancellor Matthew Goldstein—whose salary was $490,000 with a $90,000 housing allowance—a golden retirement parachute that would have let Goldstein return as a “consultant” to the university—while drawing a salary over $300,000.

The members of the CUNY Board of Trustees and administrators, in bringing Petraeus to New York, were not doing this just to let students learn at his knees; rather, the deal represents a semester’s worth of networking opportunities for them. There are, after all, many contacts Petraeus has in Washington; these may send lucrative consulting and speaking opportunities the trustees’ way.

One good turn deserves another.

What does the Goldstein retirement deal remind you most of? If you guessed corporations and CEOs, who draw multi-million dollar salaries and can cash out lucrative stock options when they retire, you would not be too far off the mark.

For it is from that domain that modern university administrators and the military draw its most direct inspiration. Besides the language of “best practices” and “synergies,” university administrators have also borrowed the corporate sense of entitlement, reflexive anti-union hostility, and the solidarity that holds the 1 percent together in class loyalty.

In corporations, the cult of the CEO predominates: men—hardly ever women—who are revered as rainmakers and ascribed magical powers to change the fortunes of ailing corporations and granted total credit for any such improvement. The myth of the lone author in the world of publishing finds its counterpart in the myth of the auteur CEO.

Forgotten in this orgy of misplaced congratulations are the corporation’s workers, whose efforts are now rewarded by salaries that continue to shrink to smaller and smaller proportions of CEO salaries. Correspondingly, at the university, administrator salaries and expenses increase, while faculty salaries stagnate. Corporate CEOs, meanwhile, are admired for their “efficiency,” even as corporate America resembles an expensive, wasteful, top-heavy, bureaucracy, as beleaguered faculty find out every time they encounter a university administration’s ironically baroque plan—one designed by expensive management consultants—to curb inefficiency.

In Hanif Kureishi’s indictment of Thatcherite England, My Beautiful Laundrette, the wheeling-and-dealing Uncle Nasser tells nephew Omar to “squeeze the tits of the system.”

Petraeus, CUNY administration and many others like them have their hands full. 


Samir Chopra is a professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College. His most recent book is Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket. He blogs at


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