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CUNY Faculty Weigh In on the UFS Executive Committee Statement Concerning Last Week’s Petraeus Incident

posted Sep 17, 2013, 7:16 AM by Emily Tai   [ updated Sep 21, 2013, 7:42 PM ]

The UFS Executive Committee’s statement concerning the Petraeus Incident was quoted and discussed in the Monday, September 16 edition of Inside Higher Ed.   

The statement also drew comment from a number of CUNY Faculty who wrote to us to express their views.  With the permission of their authors, we reproduce these comments below:

Dear UFS:

I strongly disagree with the UFS statement. David Petraeus never should have been appointed to teach at CUNY. The students were expressing this view, which they have every right to express. By the way, the confrontation with Petraeus occurred after his class, not before.

Have you seen this video?

You write that the "demonstrators intend to deprive him of his ability to teach." Petraeus's use of the "Salvador Option" in Iraq deprived people of far more than that! He was the commander in charge of funding, training and arming Iraqi paramilitary units that illegally detained, tortured and typically killed people. One of their favorite interrogation methods was to use an electric drill on the kneecaps and shoulders of detainees. The brutality of the Special Police Commandos that Petraeus and his close assistant James Steele created provoked a violent sectarian war that killed thousands.

Would we want a known child molester or rapist teaching at CUNY? Petraeus's war crimes are far worse. It's disappointing that you don't acknowledge the historical record of his crimes -- in Iraq, in Afghanistan and as CIA Director. How does a few students yelling at Petraeus compare to his vile command role in denying Iraqis not only their civil liberties but their lives?


This is not an academic freedom issue. We don't oppose Petraeus's appointment because of his conservative ideas, but because of his well-documented record of brutal actions, which brought tremendous suffering to the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

It's too bad there wasn't a robust debate before you issued your statement.

Glenn Kissack



Sir:  I fear that many students -- and a fair number of my colleagues -- believe in academic freedom only for those with whose views they agree.  Further, it is a state of mind that the university itself has unwittingly promoted.


Allan Atlas

Distinguished Professor of Music

PhD Program in Music

The Graduate Center/CUNY


I thought organized protest was a legitimate form of free speech in a democratic society - so what's the problem?

Roberto Visani

John Jay College of Criminal Justice



Petraeus has a right to be on campus and to teach anything he wants to teach -- that is academic freedom.   BUT, at the same time, people have to be absolutely free to demonstrate against a war criminal not only on campus, but also being hired by the university to teach whatever war
criminal content he intends to teach.   That is also academic freedom.   The UFS position on this was one


Sidney Harring

CUNY School of Law



CUNY Faculty Senate:

Your university seems to have the right to pay David Petraeus an obscene amount of money, be it taxpayer dollars or private contributions, simply on the basis of his name.  The sidewalks belong to the people.  How dare you suggest the people have no right to protest a war criminal.  You are taking advantage of and misusing the right of "academic freedom."

Dr. Trudy Bond


Dear William:

I totally agree with you.

Paolo Fasoli
Department of Romance Languages
Hunter College of the City University of New York


I read the University Faculty Senate’s recent statement on General Petraeus with great interest, especially because my own case at Brooklyn College was invoked to make a point. More specifically, your statement suggests that the treatment Petraeus received as he walked to his class constituted a threat to academic freedom. This is a dubious claim as the cases bear little resemblance. 


As I can recall, the UFS opposed the administrative overreach in my own case and supported my immediate reinstatement at Brooklyn College. I was grateful for this principled stance, but I do not remember anything being said about harassment, epithets, or verbal attacks—all of which I experienced as a result of the controversy surrounding my seminar. Indeed, it would have been inappropriate to make such a statement; to do so would have been to place the instructor’s personal comfort above the legitimacy of free speech. The students at Brooklyn College who opposed my presence on campus had every right to do so. We can quibble about the tone of protests, but it’s not clear to me how protests alone (in public space no less) constitute a threat to a teacher’s ability to carry out their responsibilities. My case at Brooklyn College hinged on academic freedom because I was actively barred from the classroom for what were clearly political motives. The administration sought to preclude controversy by quietly dismissing me. As far as I’m aware, General Petraeus lacks none of the institutional resources necessary to carry out his teaching duties and as for the protests, thicker skin should be all the protection required.


Yours sincerely,


Kristofer Petersen-Overton


I appreciate the position of the senate in this matter, however I do not agree that this is a simple case of academic freedom.  I was not at the event, nor did I even know about it until today, however General Petraeus (you are being generous referring to him as "professor") was not challenged for his ideas, beliefs, or teachings.  Rather, it was his behavior and position as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.  He was in government at its highest levels and therefore his record is fair game for any protesters.  He never should have been hired at the obscene salary he was offered, particularly during a time of cutbacks and budge tightening.  You are distorting the concept of academic freedom by equating his actions in the military with speech and thought. 

Professor Bruce Cronin
Department of Political Science
City College of New York
I am shocked and disappointed at the UFS statement which effectively questions the right of CUNY students and faculty to express their views about a highly controversial public figure who was given a privileged platform to express his views in the CUNY community. Nobody is telling Petreus what to teach in the classroom. We must question why he was hired in the first place. He is teaching a subject in which he has no significant knowledge or expertise. His expertise is as a spymaster and counterinsurgency chief, and if he were to teach these subjects based on his leading role as a warrior I would expect we would all question what this has to do with the educational mission of CUNY. I expect that the elected representatives of our faculty do better than take shots at the brave students and faculty members who have spoken out. I would hope, instead, that our elected bodies look into and help stop the growing presence of the military on our campuses with the return of ROTC. As someone who has taught in the Macauley Honors program I am ashamed to see Petreus there, and as long as he is there I will be absent.
Tom Angotti
Professor of Urban Affairs & Planning
Hunter College and the Graduate Center

I agree no one should be harassed for their (accurate, non-threatening) opinions, but speaking as a faculty member, that’s only part of the very real objections to David Petraeus joining CUNY:


1.      Who hired him? – not a college faculty, since he was hired by Macaulay Honors College, but the central administration, who are constantly stripping away faculty prerogatives like hiring and curriculum (see Pathways).   

2.      2. How much was he going to be paid?  His original salary offer of $150,000 is far more than the rest of us faculty, who haven’t had a contract or a raise in 3 years, will ever see.   In fact it was so embarrassingly disproportional that, under pressure, he agreed to take only a token fee.

3.      Since when does Macaulay get its own faculty?  Not on my campus, where regular faculty have a  chance to teach in that program, not star outsiders.  Seems like  a striking case of “separate but unequal.”

4.       Having an affair with one’s biographer is not what I’d call a sterling example of academic/scholarly integrity.


Petraeus is one more example of how the university is being turned into a two-tier system, with a few overpaid stars (and administrators) the central office can brag about on subway ads, and thousands of exploited, voiceless adjuncts.  I’m furious at his hire too – I’m just too busy with my heavy course load and my outside extra work to show up for the protests.  And I’m thrilled that at least a few people still have enough awareness, energy, and time to devote to publicizing the elitist direction in which CUNY, and the whole country, are headed.  If CUNY had ever paid me enough so that I could retire at a reasonable age (I’m close to 66), or if my “defined contribution” pension weren’t dependent on the stock market in a nation where a few rich folks reap huge profits from shady transactions and cause the rest of us go backward in recession, I’d have already left this sad, ominous situation.  The UFS letter to faculty complaining about Petraeus’s treatment may be addressed to the “CUNY community,” but there is no sense of community anymore: mass anger and alienation are the deeper rot underneath a few hecklers.


James M. Saslow

Professor of Art History, Theatre, and Renaissance Studies

Queens College & Graduate Center, CUNY

Dept. of Art, Queens College -- Klapper 167

The students that harassed General Petraeus on the streets of our city, by actions and words, displayed a vulgar assault on academic freedom. How is it possible that members of the academy cannot understand the elements of free and open discourse or comprehend the extent of the damage their protests have caused? Their behavior was thuggish and unacceptable. They have besmirched and sullied the reputation of both the Faculty and the University. This behavior requires more than censure. 


Professor A. M. Langer

PhD Program in EES

GSUC - CUNY      

I disagree with the position taken by the UFS regarding the “Petraeus Incident” for the following reasons.  It is NOT a question of academic freedom; it is a question of who should NOT be allowed to teach at CUNY, or anywhere else.


My primary reason for saying Petraeus should not be allowed to teach is because he gave leadership and knowingly GAVE ORDERS, to officers under his command, to commit torture and mass murder in Iraq (and elsewhere) in illegal wars which were based on either outright lies or mis-information (you decide which word applies --- remember the fabricated issue of so-called WMD’s that did not exist in Iraq).  As a result, under the command of General Petraeus, there were many, many thousands of people who were tortured and/or murdered.  Is that what qualifies Petraeus to teach at CUNY?


News headlines report about the tragedies of “mass-murderers” who kill more than 10 people, such as recently occurred in Wash. D.C.   By that standard, Petraeus is a certainly a MASS-MURDERER.  Therefore, Petraeus should not be allowed to teach at CUNY because of his past actions.  His actions were far worse than those of child-molesters or rapists, who also should not be allowed to teach at CUNY because of their past actions.


I must say I am curious about who in CUNY made the decision to “hire” Petraeus in the first place?  Did they follow proper procedures in doing so?   Do they think it is irrelevant that Petraeus is a highly skilled mass-murderer?


Wally Rosenthal

Instructor, Remedial Mathematics

CUNY  Start Program, Queensborough Community College, CUNY


Dear Executive Director Phipps and Executive Committee of the University Faculty Senate,

While I recall that the University Faculty Senate (UFS) advocated for the reinstatement of my colleague Kristofer Petersen-Overton, I wasn’t under the impression that the objection to his being fired rested, in part, on the idea that faculty should be free to teach in spaces free of  vigorous criticism. I was just searching for your statement of support for Lecturer Petersen-Overton and could only find references to it in the press. Is it available on your website and I've overlooked it?

While I'm curious about the comparison between Petersen-Overton and Petraeus that you've asserted, that’s not the heart of my concern. Should we understand that the UFS is more concerned with the tone of these protests than the speech rights of students, staff, and faculty?

Could a representative of the UFS explain how political protests on city sidewalks or common spaces on our campuses impair a faculty member’s ability to teach and students to learn?

While I see that Petraeus's appointment was discussed on the UFS blog (https://cunyufs.commons.gc.cuny.edu/), I'm unable to tell if that carries the same weight as the statement that was just circulated. Did the UFS Executive Committee issue statement/s to inquire about the rate of pay offered to General Petraeus or his qualifications to hold the title Visiting Distinguished Professor given CUNY's description of this title?

Thanks very much in advance for any further information you can provide.

Jennifer Gaboury
Full Time Lecturer and Associate Director, Women and Gender Studies, Hunter College


Students and others have a right to protest and should be encouraged to do so in a dignified way. That doesn't necessarily mean quietly. The UFS should issue a statement in support of meaningful protests. I WANT students who protest and who are active and passionate members of society. If we don't like the way they protest, then let us faculty join them and model protest that is forceful, loud, and focused on the issues. For those who are opposed to the protests, freedom of speech so important that we should support it even in cases where we'd rather people not speak.

That's admirable that the UFS supports faculty. But is Petraeus really one of us? He wasn't hired by faculty. He was hired by administration. Thinking of him as a faculty member is a stretch. I feel he deserves the same respect and treatment that a CUNY Board member does, and I support the right to protest the CUNY Board.

Charles Neuman
Associate Professor of Physics

Queensborough Community College

We continue to invite faculty to comment on this issue; please address all comments to the Editor at etai@qcc.cuny.edu.  Comments may be edited for length and style; no comments will be posted without the permission of the author.