The Commencement Speaker Racket

Hank Reichman

It’s that time of year again, as colleges and universities celebrate their graduates at commencement ceremonies, often by providing a celebrity speaker. And, of course, that means it’s also the time of year when complaints are raised about whether some speakers are appropriate (or, as some would have it, “politically correct”) and about whether those who object to speakers engage in censorship. Even President Obama, who addressed the graduating class at Rutgers last week, got into the act, declaring that it was “misguided” for the school’s students and faculty to protest former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s planned commencement speech two years ago. It’s not so clear his criticism was well-founded, about which more shortly, but what most observers have failed to notice is the fact that, controversial or not, commencement speeches can also be quite costly in a quite literal sense.

The Associated Press asked twenty institutions with celebrity speakers to provide costs for those speakers, including speaking fees and travel expenses. The results aren’t pretty. “The University of Houston, which increased tuition this year, paid $166,000 to bring Matthew McConaughey to speak last spring, including $9,500 for his airfare. The University of Oklahoma paid $110,000 to book journalist Katie Couric in 2006. Both speakers donated their fees to charity, but their costs sparked a debate about whether colleges pay too much for pageantry.” Although the president spoke for free at Rutgers, that university has been paying for speakers ever since it gave $30,000 to Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison in 2011. This year the school paid $35,000 for journalist Bill Moyers, who spoke at one division’s ceremony after Obama’s university-wide keynote address.