The Commencement Speaker Racket


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.

The AP found that many schools, especially more prestigious and wealthy private schools, don’t pay fees, in part because they have prominent alumni, trustees and donors who can be tapped.  Still, even those schools usually cover at least travel and lodging for their speakers, costs that can add up.  For instance, “the University of Georgia spent $22,000 to charter a flight for ABC news anchor Amy Robach. The University of Texas at Austin paid a $3,300 hotel bill last year for Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. The bill included two nights at a Four Seasons Hotel and $450 in charges from the hotel spa. The University of Wisconsin-Madison paid $3,100 for first class flights taking Katie Couric to and from New York.”

Regular readers of this blog will not be much surprised by all this, which seems just another relatively minor abuse associated with the growing privatization and corporatization of higher education. What may be surprising, however, is that at least some administrators are resisting the pressure to compete for high-visibility prestige speakers. According to the AP, Bradley University in Illinois abolished its annual graduation speech this year. President Gary Roberts said the decision was meant to save time in a lengthy ceremony, but also to cut travel expenses paid to speakers.

“I’m not going to use student tuition dollars to pay a person who’s already pretty wealthy to come and pontificate,” he said. “I can think of a lot of things to do with that kind of money that would be more valuable to our students.”  Wow!  Common sense from a university president.  Perhaps there is hope, after all.

Returning now to President Obama’s Rutgers address, the president told the graduates, “I know a couple years ago, folks on this campus got upset that Condoleezza Rice was supposed to speak at a commencement.  Now, I don’t think it’s a secret that I disagree with many of the foreign policies of Dr. Rice and the previous administration, but the notion that this community or the country would be better served by not hearing from a former Secretary of State, or shutting out what she had to say, I believe that’s misguided,” he said. “I don’t think that’s how democracy works best, when we’re not even willing to listen to each other.”

But Charles Häberl, associate professor and chair of the African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian languages and literatures department at Rutgers, who supported the student-led opposition to Rice, sees things differently, as he explained in an op-ed piece:

The movement opposing Rice as commencement speaker was never about denying her a platform to speak. That would have been an impossible goal. As one of the most powerful women in the history of American politics, Rice enjoys a level of influence and publicity today that few if any of the students opposing her selection will ever attain.

Instead of simply trying to silence a voice they found objectionable, the students opposing Rice’s forum raised relevant issues about the selection process and proposed an alternative debate forum that could have provided for critical engagement.

An initial objection to Rice’s selection was to the usurpation of a committee formed explicitly for that purpose, with representation from the student body and the faculty, as well as the upper echelons of the Rutgers administration. Rutgers President Robert Barchi abolished this long-standing, democratic, and transparent institution in favor of appointing his own consultative committee, which he himself chaired.

At the time that Rice was invited to speak, the salaries of Rutgers’ faculty had been frozen for several years due to alleged unavailability of funds. Despite this lack of funding for academics, Rice was offered $35,000 to come to Rutgers. In that year, two languages – Bengali and Yoruba – were abolished from the Rutgers curriculum. The funds offered to Rice would have been sufficient to allow my department to continue offering these languages to our students.

Finally, in addition to a platform to share her opinions and experiences with us, Rice would have received a doctorate of laws and the honor of delivering the keynote address. . . .

Commencement speakers do not receive the “tough questions” Obama proposed Sunday. There is no opportunity to “hold their feet to the fire” or “make them defend their positions.” By reducing the complex and nuanced positions of the campus community members opposing Rice’s selection as speaker, her hefty fee, and the awarding of an honorary degree to yet another stale debate about campus political correctness, Obama has unfortunately done a grave disservice to the truth.

One thought on “The Commencement Speaker Racket

  1. I wonder if President Obama felt a similar concern when Mumia Abu-jamal was prevented from speaking at a commencement by the governor of Pennsylvania.

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