David Petraeus’ new $1 salary

(Cliff Owen, File/Associated Press)
(Cliff Owen, File/Associated Press)

The Ivory Tower has long been a reliable stop on the road to redemption for post-scandal public figures. Teach a few students, do a little scholarship, and before long you can move on to the more lucrative opportunities for remaking your career.

But when the teaching job is lucrative itself, it's not such a safe bet. That's what Retired Gen. David H. Petraeus appears to have learned recently after taking a six-figure annual salary to teach a weekly seminar at the City University of New York's Macaulay Honors College. After Gawker reported on July 1 that Petraeus had initially been offered a $200,000 salary (apparently later changed to $150,000), a controversy ensued, with city and state officials criticizing the high pay.

Now that job, one of two academic posts Petraeus has taken on since resigning as CIA director following an affair with his biographer, will only be paying him $1. On Monday, the New York Times reported that Petraeus proposed waiving his salary after his compensation threatened to become yet another scandal for the retired general. Petraeus was to deliver the three-hour weekly seminar with the help of grad students who would grade exams and help with course research. The average full-time professor makes just less than $90,000 at CUNY, while the average adjunct professor reportedly makes $25,000—and that's for teaching a full load of classes.

Perhaps Petraeus was already in talks with KKR, the private equity firm that recently named him chairman of the KKR Global Institute. Investors and corporate executives may make that kind of money per hour, but post-scandal celebrity professors typically do not. For instance, Eliot Spitzer was paid less than $5,000 per semester to teach a class at City College.

The point of a post-scandal teaching job, after all, is not to be cashing in but helping out, or at least look like you're doing so. It would have been wise for Petraeus to try to keep his pay in check, or, at the very least, refrain from saying in e-mails with the dean of a public university how much money could be made elsewhere. In an e-mail published by Gawker following a Freedom of Information Act request, Petraeus wrote that he could have "gotten more money or more prestigious places (you won't believe what USC will pay per week) but Matt and you convinced me that this was the principal place to teach."

Of course, the biggest question of judgement in all this may not be Petraeus's initial acceptance of the high compensation, but that CUNY officials were throwing that kind of money at a visiting professor in the first place. Yes, Petraeus brings incredible experience and a rare perspective to students, as well as prestige and star wattage for the university. But he's also unlikely to have the kind of time to devote to students that could really make an impact on their lives.

As Corey Robin wrote for Salon.com, "the mission of CUNY is to educate hundreds of thousands — not 10 or 15 — of poor, working-class, middle-class and immigrant students, to propel them into a culture that they will in turn transform. ...That some now think that can only be done by showering money on a man rather than investing in an institution speaks volumes about the way we live now."

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

What David Petraeus has to offer KKR

David Petraeus, Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner and the art of the comeback

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Tom Fox · July 16, 2013