Commencement Cash Cow

Speakers should be ashamed of charging to appear, and colleges should stop offering the money, writes Pablo Eisenberg.

May 9, 2011

For years many colleges and universities have been paying speaker fees -- some quite substantial -- to celebrities, prominent academics and other well-known personalities to deliver commencement addresses or to give speeches during the academic year on campus and at student meetings.

It has been one of the best-kept secrets of academic life, until the newspapers recently reported that Rutgers University had invited Toni Morrison, Nobel laureate in literature, to deliver this year’s commencement address for $30,000. It was then reported that Rutgers students had upped the ante by inviting Snooki, of "Jersey Shore" fame, to the campus to talk about partying and having fun for the tidy sum of $32,000.

That Snooki should command more money than Morrison was somewhat surprising, but even more shocking was the willingness of Rutgers to spend a large amount of money on a commencement speech at a time when the university has experienced financial difficulties, canceled pay raises, and -- last June -- frozen the salaries of 13,000 employees.

While many colleges and universities are able to attract well-known and thoughtful commencement speakers free of charge either through personal contacts or the awarding of honorary degrees, a large number of these institutions rely on financial inducements to bring speakers to their campuses. Michael Frick, president of the Speakers Platform, told The Los Angeles Times that about 30 percent of all colleges pay their commencement speakers. Other speaker agencies seem to agree with this estimate.

Commencement fees range from a couple of thousand dollars to over $100,000. Katie Couric received an astonishing $110,000 to deliver the commencement address at the University of Oklahoma in 2006. Rudy Giuliani, a year earlier, charged $75,000 to speak at High Point University. Giuliani reputedly now gets about $100,000 plus a private jet for a speech. In 2007 Senator John Edwards received $55,000 for a speech at the University of California at Davis. The rates have probably increased significantly with inflation in recent years.

Many colleges are willing to pay high fees for a variety of reasons. Some see it as a marketing tool to attract students, parents and donors. Others feel that celebrity speakers enhance their prestige and reputation. Yet others hope that commencement personalities will enliven otherwise dreary, three-hour ceremonies. Some may even want to convey an inspirational message to graduating students.

While college administrators are responsible for doling out exorbitant commencement speaker fees, they are often under pressure from students to increase the availability of higher fees in order to spend what it takes to book more prestigious speakers. Student newspapers regularly push their institutions to increase commencement honorariums to secure higher-octane celebrities.

The greed of speakers is another factor in the business of attracting well-known personalities to graduation exercises. Why should Katie Couric, who earns $15 million a year or more at CBS, charge so much money to speak for 30-45 minutes at a university? Does Toni Morrison, a tenured professor at Princeton and the recipient of handsome royalties from her many books, need a large honorarium for her speech to Rutgers graduates? They and many others should be giving back to a college system that nurtured their talents. The ready willingness of colleges to spend their scarce resources on commencement fees rather than assistance to needy students merely feeds the appetites of these already wealthy personalities.

It is exceedingly difficult to penetrate the collegiate wall of silence surrounding commencement and other speaker fees. Calls to several agencies that recruit commencement speakers either went unanswered or received the response that such information was confidential. Almost invariably, my inquiries to college public relations or administration departments were met with an "I don’t know. I will have to get back to you." I’m still waiting for some of the responses.

Clearly, universities and colleges are nervous about divulging information about speaker fees, especially at a time when they have raised tuition, frozen salaries, limited financial aid and hired more part-time, low-paid teachers. College speaking fees, whether at commencements or on other occasions, should become a matter of public record. They should not be a subject for investigative reporters.

For their part, college administrators should remind their trustees, alumni, students and parents that commencement fees are inappropriate at a time when their institutions are facing budget crises and student costs are rising at unacceptable rates. Every available dollar needs to be channeled into the real business of higher education.


Pablo Eisenberg is a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute and a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy.


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