Increasingly, American universities are paying high fees for speakers, for both commencement and academic-year lectures.

Traditionally, many American higher education institutions have had commencement speakers who are either their current presidents, distinguished faculty or graduating seniors. Often, though, these speakers are alumni who have had successful careers and whose return to their alma mater portends well for the new graduates’ career prospects.

If some of these alumni are not quite household names outside of their respective fields, university public relations can justify those selections and so not disappoint the graduates, their families, alumni and the university community. Rich alumni speakers may also make large donations.

True, the spotlight may be brief, but as Andy Warhol famously said: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

American universities have also long had commencement speakers who are famous, but without any formal ties to those schools. These non-alumni speakers are politicians, journalists, other writers, artists, entertainers and athletes.

But where such celebrities historically spoke for free — the invitation and the usual honorary degree being sufficient compensation — nowadays ever more of them demand large, even exorbitant, fees.

When asked about selecting non-alumni commencement speakers like entertainers and professional athletes — whose successes may have little connection with higher education — administrators reply that celebrity speakers bring positive publicity to the institution.

Some defenders of paid commencement speakers make an analogy with investments in major collegiate sports, especially football and basketball. If those teams play in football bowl games or national basketball tournaments, that allegedly is worth its weight in “gold,” such as increased applications, greater enrollments, favorable publicity and more donations.

Still, investing for the long term in collegiate sports seems less irresponsible than paying commencement speakers for a few minutes’ worth of insights. Public institutions, moreover, may be financially strapped. They may have recently raised tuition, the unfortunate timing of which is not lost on students and their families.

In 2011, Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison received $30,000 for the commencement address at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey. But that’s peanuts compared with the $120,000 paid to movie star Matthew McConaughey for his recent graduation speech at the University of Houston, another public school.

He said the money would be donated to his favorite charity — although the same could not be said for the private jet and hotel suite paid for by the university.

Besides commencement speakers, other highly paid celebrity speakers have become increasingly popular. In 2012, my own impoverished public institution, the University of Maine, paid $45,000 to best-selling historian Doris Kearns Goodwin for a speech that merely summarized her 2005 book, “Team of Rivals.” The occasion was Leadership Week, marking the inauguration of Paul Ferguson as university president.

Goodwin was a very good speaker, but her fee could have instead nearly paid the first-year salary of an assistant professor desperately needed by my history department.

In this and other cases, the campus organizers always claim that private funds were used. One example is the $275,000 now charged by Hillary Clinton for academic-year campus speeches (up from $250,000 a while ago for the public University of Connecticut and other schools). Then there’s the $175,000 recently paid to New England Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady to participate in the annual speaker series at Massachusetts’ public Salem State University.

Some organizers also contend that ticket sales will cover some of the costs. Finally, organizers boast whenever the speaker’s fees are donated to charity – usually belatedly, and usually thanks to public outrage. When, however, these same institutions desperately need money for new faculty or library books or equipment, the private funds invariably disappear.

Do not, however, expect Hillary, Bill or daughter Chelsea Clinton to donate their fees to any organization but their own global charitable empire. Indeed, when the public University of Missouri at Kansas City could not raise the $275,000 for Hillary Clinton’s appearance at the opening of a women’s hall of fame, they managed to negotiate a mere $65,000 for her daughter.

Surely Chelsea’s daughter Charlotte, born in September 2014, will soon be available for well-paid campus engagements.

Howard Segal is a professor of history at the University of Maine and is editing a book on the university’s history since its 1965 centennial. An earlier version of this commentary appeared in the Times Higher Ed of London.


filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.