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‘General’ Education at CUNY

By John Tarleton
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The end of Spring semester seemed to be the “season of the generals” at CUNY. At Baruch, retired General Wesley Clark received an honorary degree and was a featured speaker at the college’s May 30 commencement ceremonies. A month earlier, on April 29, the Board of Trustees renamed City College’s Division of Social Sciences as the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership. And on April 23, CUNY announced the appointment of a visiting professor of public policy at Macaulay Honors College: retired four-star General David Petraeus, former top commander of US forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and former head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

At Macaulay, Petraeus will lead a Fall 2013 seminar “examining the developments that could position the United States – and its North American partners – to lead the world out of the current global economic slowdown,” focusing on energy, advanced manufacturing, life sciences and information technology. The course will be limited to 16 students who must complete an application with faculty recommendations and be vetted by a selection committee. Petraeus will be simultaneously teaching part-time at the University of Southern California. He has also just been hired by private equity giant KKR, where he will chair an internal institute focused on public policy and investments in emerging markets.

“CUNY is profoundly honored to welcome Dr. Petraeus to our academic community,’’ said outgoing Chancellor Matthew Goldstein. “Our students will have a unique opportunity to learn about public policy firsthand from a distinguished leader with extraordinary experience and expertise in international security issues, intelligence matters and nation-building.’’

Petraeus’s appointment at Macaulay sparked a different reaction among other members of the CUNY community: a petition calling for Petraeus’s appointment to be rescinded quickly garnered hundreds of signatures. “He was integrally involved in an illegal war and occupation that killed hundreds of thousands of people, inflamed sectarian conflict, and left a country in ruins,” said Mike Stivers, a junior philosophy major at Macaulay who was among those signing the petition. A March report by the BBC Arabic and the Guardian newspaper tied Petraeus and two of his top advisors to local paramilitaries that tortured thousands of their fellow Iraqis in US-funded detention centers. “[CUNY] is blinded to the fact that this guy has been accused of war crimes,” said Stivers.

Glenn Petersen, chair of the department of sociology and anthropology at Baruch, noted that while commanding US forces in Iraq and then Afghanistan, Petraeus incorporated anthropologists into military Human Terrain Teams that closely studied local populations in order to more effectively carry out counter-insurgency efforts. This approach was envisioned in The US Army / Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (University of Chicago Press, 2007), for which Petraeus was a lead author. The tactic has been sharply criticized by many anthropologists as a violation of academic ethics that endangers independent anthropologists working in the field.

Petersen, a Vietnam veteran, said he was troubled by the lack of public discussion at CUNY before Petraeus was hired, which would have allowed for broader consideration of the ethical and practical issues raised by the appointment. “To just appoint people because they are seen as prestigious is counter-productive,” Petersen said.