Celebrity speakers: putting money where their mouths are

In the US, the cost of paying for expensive commencement speeches is diverting funds from where they’re most needed, says Howard Segal

July 23, 2015
From Where I Sit illustration (23 July 2015)

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 their current presidents, distinguished faculty or graduating seniors. Often these speakers are alumni who have had successful careers and whose return to their alma mater portends well for the new graduates’ career prospects.

American universities have also long had commencement speakers who are famous, but without any formal ties to those schools. But where such celebrities historically spoke for free, nowadays ever more of them demand large, even exorbitant, fees.

When asked about selecting non-alumni commencement speakers whose successes may have little connection with higher education, administrators invariably reply that celebrity speakers bring positive publicity to the institution. This especially applies to schools that are not well known outside their region. Some 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”: increased applications, enrolments, favourable publicity and donations.

Still, investing for the long term in collegiate sports seems less irresponsible than paying commencement speakers for a few minutes’ insights. Public institutions, moreover, may be financially strapped.

In 2011, Nobel prizewinning author Toni Morrison received $30,000 (£19,234) for giving the commencement address at public Rutgers University. But that’s peanuts as compared with the $120,000 paid to Matthew McConaughey for his recent graduation speech at the public University of Houston. He said that the money would be donated to his charity – although the same could not be said for the private jet and hotel suite paid for by Houston. 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 bestselling historian Doris Kearns Goodwin for a speech that summarised her 2005 book, Team of Rivals. She was a very good speaker, but her fee could have nearly paid the first-year salary of an assistant professor desperately needed by my history department.

In this and other cases, including the $275,000 now charged by Hillary Clinton for non-graduation campus speeches and the $175,000 recently paid to New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady for a non-graduation speech at the public Salem State University in Massachusetts, the campus organisers always claim that private funds were used. When, however, these same institutions need money for faculty or library books, the private funds disappear.

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

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

Howard Segal is professor of history at the University of Maine and is editing a book on its history since 1965, which was its centennial.

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Reader's comments (1)

Tom Brady was paid with ticket sales and sponsor fees. The University made money on the event. How is that a bad thing. Brady also donated his fees to charities. So, in that case more than $200,000 were raised for non-profits and not a bit of public money was used. No money was diverted from students (in fact money was raised for students). I think you picked a poor example.