Politics & Policy

Without Honors

CUNY students confront David Petraeus. (Photo: YouTube)

One wonders why David Petraeus, former general and most recently director of the Central Intelligence Agency, would choose to be associated with the City University of New York. Judging from the reception he has received, the attraction cannot be the intellectual environment on campus. On his first day, Petraeus was greeted by a rabble of protesters shouting “Murderer!,” “War criminal!,” “Disgusting imperialist!,” and other intellectual sentiments, including many that may not be reproduced here. The mob has promised to repeat its unedifying performance every time Petraeus appears on campus, which is to be weekly. The university, to its dishonor, has given no indication that it intends to do anything about this.

This is not a question of the First Amendment. CUNY may not be home to the best and brightest, but its students certainly have the right to shout their thick-headed sentiments from whatever street corner will have them. Yet those need not be CUNY’s corners. Universities have a positive obligation to cultivate and sustain an intellectual environment conducive to open (and, one hopes, enlightening) discourse. Tolerating a mob’s attempts to force a man off campus for holding views at odds with those of the ladies and gentlemen of the Macaulay Honors College at CUNY is a violation of the university’s mission. Screaming obscenities in the face of a visiting professor would be, at a self-respecting institution, a cause for disciplining the students involved — harshly. An institution calling itself an “honors” college has an obligation to live up to certain minimal intellectual standards, and here CUNY has failed spectacularly. The students have an obligation to live up to certain standards, too, instead of comporting themselves like buffoons.

So it is not for intellectual stimulation that Petraeus has attached himself to CUNY. What else might it be?

It is not the money. Having agreed to a $150,000 salary, Petraeus accepted a somewhat lower figure — $1 — after his compensation became a source of political controversy. The American Association of University Professors, Democratic New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, and Republican assemblyman Kieran Lalor attacked that original “bloated” salary. Far be it from us to contest the proposition that academics are overpaid, but $150,000 is on the modest side for a celebrity lecturer with Petraeus’s standing. For comparison, ten relatively obscure professors at the highly regarded Thunderbird School of Global Management were paid a total of $4.3 million in 2011.

Both the students and the administrators of the college have some growing up to do.

In addition to his 37-year military career that culminated in his serving as commander of multinational forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and his service as director of the CIA, Petraeus holds a doctorate in international relations from Princeton. Those profanity-spewing students at CUNY could learn a thing or two from him, if they were so inclined. But they manifestly are not so inclined, and their university apparently has no intention of cultivating the sort of intellectual atmosphere in which such learning might flourish. A reasonably bright sophomore would be embarrassed to be associated with what the students of CUNY have done and the administration has permitted. Perhaps David Petraeus is doing penance for his sins — we can think of no other reason that he would want to be associated with a CUNY that bows to mob rule.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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