Paul Krugman & the Political Economy of CUNY


(Posted earlier to the CUNY Adjunct Project.)

Amid the responses to yesterday’s news about the supremely cushy terms of Paul Krugman’s hiring at the CUNY Graduate Center, three have stood out:

1) that the average adjunct salary per course at CUNY is ~$3,000, and Krugman will earn 75 times that to teach one seminar per year (and no teaching labor at all in his first year);

2) that Krugman’s salary of $225,000 per academic year is either appropriate to his scholarly and public stature or that he’s being underpaid at that rate; and

3) that his salary is actually a bargain because it will be well returned by virtue of the Graduate Center’s enhanced profile and an attendant increase in private donations.

To these responses I’d like to add:

a) that there are 13 different funding levels for students at the Graduate Center (GC), ranging from zero dollars to $27,000 (as of last fall’s data). Krugman’s primary attachment will be to the GC’s Luxembourg Income Study Center, the mission of which is to support the study of, among other phenomena, poverty and income inequality.

The contradiction between these objects of study and the very subjects of poverty and income inequality at the GC is worth continually highlighting. Graduate students at the GC are at the mercy of funding—the funding inequities among us are the direct result of GC decision-making and priority-setting, working within the two-way interface with CUNY Central. Just last Friday we were at a meeting in which Interim President Robinson—the GC leader who fawned so over Krugman in the numerous emails that were released—told us, yet again, that there was no money available for increased funding—not even for those students who have no funding at all, either because they came in with no funding or because they are now outside the five years of guaranteed funding of the most lucrative packages.

There is, however, $225K a year to give Krugman for just, essentially, hanging around. What if, instead, that money went to the GC students who need it the most? Sure, at an annual rate, Krugman’s salary would only equal 12.5 $18K fellowship packages, the deal that many GC students have who entered before the current academic year (including me). But another way to think about it is as 75 $3,000 grants to students sans funding, so that they could teach one less class as an adjunct, thus allowing a much-needed diminishment in pressure and the possibility, maybe, to get through another dissertation chapter because of it.

The larger issue, of course, is that the terms of Krugman’s hire represent a fundamental contradiction in the hegemony of the “lack of money” that rules the practices and discussions of public higher ed. Indeed, there is always money to be had, at CUNY as elsewhere, whether it’s to hire a celebrity prof to add value by virtue of his name, or to build a $350-million “world-class” science center. (Note that Krugman is also “world class.” CUNY’s desperate for world-class status, even if it means running its students and faculty into the ground.)

And this is just to consider the situation of graduate student workers at the GC. The CUNY system at large is rife with inequality due to the state’s and university’s spending priorities, which reflect the overall neoliberal political economy that has decimated public higher ed over the last 40+ years. Indeed, at CUNY in particular, as much as the 1969 student, faculty, and community occupation of City College was a watershed victory against structural racism and/in higher education, it also galvanized the reactionary policies that have led to the increased exclusion of working class students of color in recent years.

b) As for Krugman’s salary, whether he’s being paid appropriately for his stature is beside the point. I mean, does anyone know how much money he makes from university employment versus his NYT gig versus his books versus his speaking gigs, etc.? In a bitter irony, it would seem that university employment is actually adjunct labor for him, in the way that it was for most adjuncts back in the day, who taught to supplement their income and not for their entire livelihood, as they must today under the penury of academic capitalism.

Furthermore, CUNY’s last celebrity hire, David Petraeus, cut his salary to $1 after a similar outcry last summer over his comparably less cushy terms (he had to teach—wait for it—two courses a year). As Petraeus’s representative put it at the time, “Once controversy arose about the amount he was being paid, he decided it was much more important to keep the focus on the students, on the school and on the teaching, and not have it be about the money.”

Considering the above, is Krugman more or less ethical than Petraeus?

c) Finally, if Krugman’s hire results in more private donations, fine. But to what would those donations go? There is currently no accountability mechanism at the GC (that I’m aware of at least) to measure, on the one hand, incoming donations and, on the other, what those funds are being used for. If Krugman’s position at the GC spurs donations that will then be put to student funding, that would be great—all for it. But something tells me that’s not what’s going to happen…

To be clear, I’m not against Krugman per se—I’m against the political economy that rewards elites while immiserating everyone else (given that the middle class is increasingly an illusion). For all Krugman’s own utility, such as it is, as a scourge against center-right economics, the terms of his hiring at the GC are an unfortunate symbol of all that’s wrong with public higher ed.

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