The Economics of Prestige

CUNY's hiring of Paul Krugman was seen as a coup, but James Hoff doesn't think public universities should be spending big bucks on stars who won't do much teaching.

April 21, 2014
Paul Krugman

Earlier this year the City University of New York Graduate Center’s interim president, Chase Robinson, pulled off what amounts to an academic coup by snatching world-renowned economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman from the ivy clutches of Princeton University, where he had been employed for the last 14 years. Krugman’s appointment as Distinguished Professor of Economics was a huge boon for the Luxembourg Inequality Study, which is housed at the Graduate Center, as well as the general reputation of the university at large. Though most members of the CUNY community were thrilled to hear of his employment, the recent release of Krugman’s appointment letter has caused controversy both within and outside CUNY, and raises some serious questions about academic competition and the role of the public university.

Thanks to the intrepid reporters at Gawker — which, shamefully, seems to be one of the only new media outlets that still knows how to successfully write a FOIA request — we now have the full timeline and details of Krugman’s negotiation and acceptance letter. The most controversial bit of information by far is the amount Krugman was offered. CUNY’s initial and final overture was a whopping $225,000 per year, to which Krugman responded with incredulity, declaring that the terms of the offer were “remarkably generous.” Krugman even said he had to read the letter “several times to be clear.” Indeed, the amount offered to Krugman was quite generous as it exceeds that of any other distinguished professor at the Graduate Center by at least $5,000, and in many cases upwards of $75,000.

Whether or not Krugman’s scholarship and teaching ability warrant such a superior salary is certainly worthy of debate, but the real issue for most commentators is not how much CUNY will pay Krugman, but how little they are asking him to do. CUNY is essentially offering him what used to be called a sinecure. Like ecclesiastical appointments “without the care of souls,” the terms of Krugman’s contract require him to do almost nothing his first year and then teach just one graduate seminar each year for as long as he would like to stay at CUNY. This required teaching in the second year is less than half of the usual course load for most distinguished professors at the Graduate Center, some of whom teach three classes per year and advise several dissertations at a time. Whether Krugman will advise or sit on any dissertation committees remains to be seen.

It is clear from his acceptance email however, that he is interested in doing as little work as possible: “My biggest concern is time, not money — and your description of the time commitment, one seminar per year plus public events and commitments to LIS [Luxembourg Inequality Study] (which I would want to do in any case) sounds as if it’s within the parameters I had in mind.”

So, in essence, for the first two years CUNY is paying Krugman $450,000 (plus $10,000 in travel and research costs each year, and a one-time relocations cost of $10,000) to teach one seminar and to participate in public events.

On the surface this seems like an outrageous expenditure, but there is an obvious market logic at work here. It is clear that CUNY and the Graduate Center are banking on the brand recognition that a figure like Krugman bestows upon a university. As a Facebook friend of mine succinctly put it, Krugman is essentially “stuntcasting for cash,” and one has to wonder how long before his name is plastered on subway ads promoting CUNY’s “best and brightest.”

Of course, such anger is only partially well-placed, since appointments like this are not unusual and there is a strong case to be made for the intellectual and social value of such positions. After all, the public should support scholars and research. Krugman’s presence will no doubt be of great benefit to the Luxembourg Inequality Study, and his talks are a valuable tool for educating the general public on questions of economic inequality, precarity, and privatization. But Krugman is not a young unaffiliated researcher and his work requires no special laboratories or equipment to perform. In other words, Krugman does not need a university affiliation to do the work he is already doing. In fact, Krugman, who has a current net worth of $2.5 million, whose books sell in the hundreds of thousands, and who is paid quite well by The New York Times, has no need for money to fund his continued research and public advocacy.

And herein lies the contradiction through which the problem is revealed. A longtime champion of public institutions as drivers of economic equality, Krugman is now essentially colluding with administrators to take on private academic institutions in what has become a vicious cycle of competition for academic prestige and the elusive donor dollars that may or may not come with it. The more that public institutions like CUNY try to keep up with the likes of Princeton and Harvard, the more they become victims of their own ambitions, forced as they are to keep throwing money away on projects that are designed almost exclusively to draw in more donors and tuition-paying students and that provide little in the way of value to university stakeholders.

Such wasteful and ill-conceived competition is a clear abandonment of CUNY’s founding mission to educate the children of the poor and working classes of New York City and represents a serious misapplication of priorities. At a time when tuition costs are skyrocketing and public higher education relies increasingly on underpaid adjuncts — teaching full course loads for near minimum wages without health insurance or job security — spending such huge amounts for celebrity appointments is not only fiscally unsound, but morally untenable.

Krugman is a remarkable intellect and an important voice for economic equality — and most of us at CUNY are glad to have him on board — but to take from a public institution on its knees when you already have so much is ungenerous and unkind. As he wrote about his appointment to CUNY in his New York Times blog, “[I] like the idea of being associated with a great public university.” If this is true, I’d urge Krugman to quantify that esteem for CUNY by donating a significant portion of his earnings, say $100,000 a year, to a scholarship fund for students or the Professional Staff Congress welfare fund, which provides much-needed health care benefits and emergency assistance for CUNY adjuncts.



James Hoff teaches writing and literature in New York City. He received his Ph.D. from the City University of New York Graduate Center in 2012.


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