Michael Busch

CUNY's chancellor has new digs, and they don't come cheap. James Milliken, who took over as chief executive for The City University of New York this June, recently moved in to a snazzy, four bedroom terrace apartment on the Upper East Side. "The monthly rent? $18,000," according to the New York Observer, and all of it paid for by the university. "The upscale apartment is totally a steal for $18,000 a month, quipped the paper, "at least for Milliken, who won't feel a thing when the rent rises to $19,500 next year. The price tag is but a dent in the $3.4 million fattening CUNY's wallet after selling the previous chancellor's apartment."

Outrageous, sure, but not unexpected. Milliken's predecessor, Matthew Goldstein, enjoyed a similarly generous package of incentives on the job, and moonlighted as a funds trustee at JPMorgan Chase, for which he received an annual salary of some $325,000. And when it came time for Goldstein to leave the chancellery, he received an unprecedented golden parachute when he retired. Immediately upon stepping down, Goldstein was granted a year-long sabbatical, where he collects nearly $500,000 in salary, followed by "five months off at the same pay rate," according to the New York Times, "for unused sick leave accumulated over his 14 years on the job. Then he will return to work for five years as chancellor emeritus, holding a formerly honorary title that will now come with a salary of $300,000."

Milliken himself is no stranger to the perks of higher ed administration. The Wall Street Journal reports this week that 2013 "was a good year for the new chancellor, who received a ton of "personal gifts from donors, alumni and business executives" while at the University of Nebraska. Mr. Milliken accepted gifts that included a pheasant-hunting trip, four Elton John concert tickets, flights via corporate jets, rounds of gold in California and tickets to an inaugural ball for President Barack Obama, according to a review of his annual financial disclosure statements." The chancellor accepted over thirty gifts "valued at $1,000 or more over the past six years and a total of 103 gifts worth or more."

These sorts of excesses are symptomatic of larger issues at CUNY. The university is rife with inequity and dysfunction--features that are growing worse as the public mission of the university is gutted and privatized. Many of the core ingredients of a healthy university are under attack at CUNY, whether itís quality education and instruction, diversity of the student body, academic freedom, the preservation of students' basic rights, or fair labor compensation.  An egregiously overpriced apartment paid for by taxpayers simply underscores the point. 

The chancellor's compensation package is the latest insult to CUNY's student population. For years now, they have been force-fed austerity arguments used to explain tuition hikes, fewer course offerings and increased class sizes. Tough times call for tough measures, students are told, even as administrators--presidents, deans, provosts, and CUNY brass--have enjoyed handsome, and in some cases routine, pay raises. Former Chancellor Goldstein exhibited a particularly healthy class consciousness on this count, ensuring hefty salary bumps for himself on a regular basis. 

The new chancellor's $18,000 a month housing allowance is also a slap in the face to CUNY's full-time faculty. Full-timers have been working without a contract since 2010, and many continue to struggle under the weight of demanding teaching loads and administrative responsibilities, inadequate benefits packages, and flagging hopes for a contract settlement that includes respectable pay raises. Meanwhile, the university has not hesitated to pay out large sums to rock-star professors and celebrity hires whose commitment to the university and its students is untested at best and questionable at worst. 

It's even more galling for CUNY's ever-expanding adjunct army. Part-time instructors teach the majority of classes at many colleges across the CUNY system, and do so for peanuts. To get a sense of relative pay, consider this: the average CUNY adjunct would have to teach about six courses a semester to make a single month's rent in Milliken's new apartment. Add to this the total absence of job security, poor health care coverage, and the rising cost of living in New York City, and the precariousness of part-time labor at CUNY gets thrown into stark relief. 

The argument can be made, and it has, that CUNY chancellors make far less than their counterparts at other universities. Incentive packages and lavish retirement plans, then, keep CUNY competitive in its hunt for the top administrative talent which, once secured, will guarantee the university's well-being over the long term. If this commitment to investing in quality were kept in good faith, the university would also be aggressively seeking to relieve the burdens facing students and full-time faculty--which it celebrates in subway ad campaigns--and the swelling ranks of contingent labor who shoulder more and more of the work. But it isn't, and the reason is clear.

CUNY is caught between two visions for the public university. The first is one embraced by large numbers of students, faculty and staff across the system. Itís animated by the belief that City University should operate according to the principles of equity and fairness, and provide access to affordable, high-quality education to anyone in search of it. In short, it's a vision of a peopleís university serving the public good.  The second looks to refashion CUNY into a private enterprise where education is commodified, effective branding confers prestige, and the money flows from bottom to top. 

Despite protests and widespread dissent in the system directed at this second vision of the public university, the chancellor's $18,000 a month housing allowance suggests it's alive and well, and gaining ground at CUNY. While the majority of faculty and students across the system face mounting obstacles to do even the simplest work of teaching and learning, CUNY's power brokers are sitting pretty in luxury apartments. Ask yourself: is this an acceptable future for a university whose central purpose is to educate working-class New Yorkers? For those committed to ensuring this mission, the answer is decidedly "no."

Michael Busch is Senior Editor at Warscapes.