In April, David Petraeus, a former head of the Central Intelligence Agency and leader of coalition forces during the war in Iraq, took an adjunct professorship at Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York. Other high-level national-security officials have also recently moved into academia. In September 2011, former CIA director and onetime secretary of defense Robert Gates became the chancellor of the College of William and Mary. And last month Janet Napolitano, former director of the Department of Homeland Security, assumed the office of president of the University of California system.

Petraeus’ appointment has generated opposition. Criticism from many — including New York City mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio — led to the reduction of Petraeus’ reported $200,000 salary for teaching one seminar to $1. (Adjunct professors usually earn $3,000 per course.)

Hundreds of students and others signed a petition protesting Petraeus’ faculty position, suggesting CUNY had become a “war college.” A demonstration on Oct. 16 included accusations that Petraeus was the “architect of almost 3,000 ‘targeted killings’ by drones” and that he had “rained death on Afghan civilians.”

Unlike Napolitano and Gates, who became university administrators, Petraeus opted to teach. While Petraeus’ role in the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has served as the basis for protests over his CUNY professorship, the content of his course, The Coming North American Decades, has received less attention. 

Petraeus’ course syllabus does not mention the U.S.-led Iraq War, its estimated $3 trillion cost to U.S. taxpayers or the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian lives lost. Rather, on the CUNY website, a course description promises that participants in the Petraeus seminar will “arrive at recommendations for America’s leadership role in the emerging global economy.” It also neglects to mention his connections to Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts (KKR), a New York–based private-equity firm whose portfolio includes billions of dollars of investments in industries such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking), biotechnology and health care.


In May, a little more than a month after the announcement of his association with CUNY, KKR announced Petraeus would head its new Global Institute. The Wall Street Journal revealed the arrangement had been in the works since the day after his CIA departure in November 2012 after revelations of an extramarital affair and well before his CUNY appointment

The dean of Macaulay Honors College is Ann Kirschner, a Victorian-literature specialist. The Macaulay website also describes her as an “entrepreneur” whose “start-up businesses include … Fathom, a for-profit online learning venture in partnership with Columbia University, London School of Economics and other leading institutions.” According to the British publication Times Higher Education, Columbia invested $25 million in Fathom. The venture launched in 2000 and closed in 2003 without turning a profit. Since 2007, Kirschner has been a member of the board of directors of Apollo Group, which owns Phoenix University, another for-profit school.

In an April 17, 2013, email to Kirschner, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, Petraeus discussed the timing of his hiring announcement with his future boss.

“And I’d say the sooner the better,” he writes, “as we are holding off other actions/announcements given our commitment that ‘CUNY goes next.’” Petraeus seems to acknowledge that his work at KKR has enabled and would shape his work at Macaulay, adding, “And as you know, one of those other actions is what enables me to do CUNY.”

On its website, KKR’s Global Institute describes itself as dedicated to “anticipating, understanding and knowing how to respond to … the impacts of revolutionary technological change.” According to the course syllabus, Petraeus’ class aims to “examine the ongoing energy, manufacturing, life sciences and information technology ‘revolutions’” and that understanding their implications will “enable the U.S. to capitalize” on economic opportunities and “contribute to the global economic recovery.” The Global Institute’s website states that grasping “revolutionary technological changes” is “critical to smart investing, portfolio management and risk mitigation.” 

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KKR, based in a midtown Manhattan, about a mile from Macaulay, describes itself as “a leading global investment firm with deep roots in private equity.” According to Investing Daily, it holds $87 billion in assets, including billions of dollars in investments in the economic sectors covered in the CUNY seminar, including fracking for unconventional oil and gas, pharmaceuticals and health care, biotechnology, and information technology.

The economic “revolutions” language in Petraeus’ syllabus also appears in a well-choreographed recorded conversation between Petraeus and Henry Kravis — unlikely revolutionary figures — in a KKR boardroom announcing the hiring announcement.