$135,000 for Commencement Speech?

News of what the University of Houston will pay the actor Matthew McConaughey renews the debate about the expense of celebrities at graduation.

April 2, 2015
Matthew McConaughey

After first trying to keep the deal a secret, the University of Houston admitted this week that it is paying Matthew McConaughey $135,000 -- plus travel and a fee to a booking agent -- to speak at its May commencement.

As both a celebrity and an alumnus of the University of Texas at Austin, McConaughey was quite a coup for Houston.

"He may occasionally prowl the sidelines during a certain university’s football games in Austin, but the University of Houston 'hooked' him," the university said in a statement when it first announced he would be coming, without mentioning the price. "It’s the kind of star power that adds muscle to the University of Houston’s bold reputation campaign, 'Welcome to the Powerhouse.'"

The university first said it could not detail how expensive a lure it used to hook the actor, due to a confidentially agreement with the booking agency, which argued that the news might prompt "unfair negatives online." After a month of pressure from The Houston Chronicle, the university released the information. The agency's fears of negative publicity may have been founded, with the news setting off a wave of criticism and snark this week online.

When Inside Higher Ed reported on the news on April 1, many quipped that the very real news seemed worthy of a joke issue.

"The University of Houston should be prepared for the longest graduation speech in history given how slowly McConaughey speaks in those ridiculous car commercials," a reader wrote. Paraphrasing the actor's famous catchphrase, one Houston resident tweeted that the fee was "not all right, all right, all right."

But speaker agencies say that the price tag is not that shocking of a figure. “Quite honestly, this not out of the norm,” said Margot Sarlo, director of marketing at All American Entertainment, an agency that has represented Neil Patrick Harris, Michael J. Fox and Reese Witherspoon. “Speakers can range from $5,000 to half a million.”

The majority of colleges still don’t pay commencement speakers, agencies say, instead offering a travel stipend or an honorary degree and relying on connections to an institution to convince them to talk to graduates largely pro bono. When they do, however, they sometimes pay a lot.

In 2006, Katie Couric received $110,000 to deliver the commencement address at the University of Oklahoma. Rudy Giuliani was paid $75,000 to speak at High Point University in 2005. Toni Morrison’s comparatively modest $30,000 fee prompted backlash in 2011, as it was the first time Rutgers University had ever paid for a commencement speaker. Last year, Kean University paid a combined $40,000 to comedians Darrell Hammond and Samantha Bee to speak at graduation ceremonies there.

The price of having these speakers come to campus doesn’t stop with their compensation. Travel, security and other considerations can drive the total cost even higher.

In a time of tuition increases and salary freezes, high-priced commencement speeches can raise more than a few eyebrows. Last month, the state of Illinois's House Higher Education Committee approved legislation that would bar universities from using public funds to pay for commencement speakers, including their travel.

“Oftentimes, successful alumni will agree to speak at their alma mater for free,” Reggie Phillips, the Republican state representative who introduced the bill, said in a statement. “If a fee is required, private funds and donations from alumni can be sought to cover costs. When funds are tight, we need to set strong priorities for the dollars that are available. Simply put, paying for a costly commencement speaker is not the best priority for limited state taxpayer funds.”

At Houston, McConaughey's fee will paid by revenue generated through the university's continuing education program. Using private funds, however, hasn’t always shielded speakers and universities from criticism. Couric and Oklahoma were slammed for her fee, even though it was covered by a private donation. Couric also stated that she donates her speaking fees to charity.

McConaughey is donating his money to charity, as well, but news of the fee continues to generate criticism. As many critics have noted, even if a university foundation or division pays the fee, that money could have supported scholarships or faculty hiring.

"Matthew McConaughey gets six figures for a commencement speech at U. of Houston," tweeted Cate McGowan, a writing professor at Valencia College. "What do they pay their adjuncts?"

So, with the criticism and mocking it attracts, why do some institutions continue to pay high prices for celebrity speakers like McConaughey?

Perhaps because for every disgruntled taxpayer, there are plenty of students -- and prospective students -- excited to see the Texas native come to campus. McConaughey, who recently traded in his rom-com heartthrob status for respected turns in prestige dramas like HBO’s "True Detective" and the film Dallas Buyers Club, is about as big-name as big names come, and many students like big-name speakers.

Every year, thousands of students urge colleges to bring well-known musicians, politicians, authors and actors to campus. After the series finale of "Parks and Recreation" included a scene with Amy Poehler’s character delivering a commencement speech at Indiana University, more than 2,000 students and alumni petitioned the university to make the scene a reality.

“Universities do see who their students want, and they assume that that’s what their future students will want to see as well,” Sarlo said. "Universities are vying for customers in the form of admissions, and this can be a great way to advertise and get people on campus."


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