Home / General / The university speaker fee racket

The university speaker fee racket


Updated below

In his post about free speech on campus arguments, Scott mentions the tangential issue of exactly how much celebrity speakers at commencements and other university events are getting paid for casting their pearls before students, parents, alumni, etc.

The University of Colorado holds what I can only hope is some sort of record in this regard, although this is a rare case in which absurdly reckless spending on campus can’t be laid at the doorstep of university administrators per se. CU-Boulder has an extraordinarily well-funded

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student government (essentially all the money comes from student fees, above and beyond tuition). I became aware of this after almost literally running into Kofi Annan a few years ago at the bar of a swank Boulder hotel (I was there for a law school event), as both of us strove to order gin and tonics and help bring about world peace.

I was curious as to how much it was costing the student government (annual budget at that time: $33 million) to bring Annan to campus, where his official duties were limited to giving one 50-minute speech. Inquiries revealed the answer was $160,000, with $100,000 of that representing his speaking fee, and the rest travel expenses for himself and his retinue. I was shocked enough by this figure to inquire further, only to discover this wasn’t a one-off event: in the previous two years the student government had paid the same $100,000 speaking fee to Rudy Giuliani and B.B. King.

Anyway, five-and six (!)-figure speaking fees for the sorts of minor celebrities who speak at commencements etc., are indeed, as Scott notes, part of a complacent racket by which the elites celebrate their wonderfulness through pecuniary gestures that grow increasingly grotesque.

Update: A commenter links to a story revealing that between leaving the White House and July 2012, Bill Clinton had received $89 million in speaking fees (a figure which by this point has almost certainly hit nine figures, as he made $13.4 million from speaking fees in 2011 alone). Over that time Clinton’s average speaking fee was $189,000, with a high of $750,000 for a speech in Hong Kong to Ericcson.

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  • 1. B.B. King?

    2. I am at least glad to know that Annan is a gin man.

    • Thom

      The thrill is gone, but the speaking fees remain.

      • Ron Paul

        Somebody loves him other than his mother, that’s for sure.

    • Scott Lemieux

      He did a fundraising concert at our school, priced so that no faculty member without a wealthy spouse was going to be able to attend.

      I mean, of people I’d like to see get the money he’d towards the 99th percentile, but…

    • williamockham

      Actually some of B.B.King’s insights might be worth a $100,000, at least to young law school graduates. One of them being, “The boss isn’t always right, but the boss is always the boss”.

    • Tracy Lightcap

      B. B. King, of course, is worth every bit of $100K.

      And he always has been. And he always will be.

  • BoredJD

    Lawprof, is the practice the same at law schools? I know CLS usually got a notable alumnus to come back for the commencement (we had both the SG and AG while I was there). I’m not sure if they were paid or not. I’d have to think that some schools don’t have the alumni base that is really going to wow students, parents or donors, so they pay for it.

    Although CLS is not above irrelevant but impressive sounding speaking events, as the 33 emails I’ve gotten about the following event show: http://www.law.columbia.edu/media_inquiries/news_events/2014/march2014/djokovic-law

    • ichininosan

      I hope there are government ethics rules that limit the honorarium racket in the AG & SG examples. But paying Djokovic to share tennis stories at the law school would be a terrific waste of money.

      This makes me wonder whether the university was paying Ahmadinejad when they invited him to share his pearls of wisdom.


      • BoredJD

        The Djokovic speech seems like the kind of pre-2008 largesse that the school could get away with back when everyone was getting 10 offers at EIP and all-in COA was a more manageable 200K.

    • CornellLawGrad

      BoredJD, I know that Cornell either does not pay its commencement speakers or will not give them an honorary degree. Whatever the policy choice, the result is that there is no fancy visitor to give a speech at graduation. Instead, there’s a speech by a faculty member and one or two by a student.

      • BoredJD

        Anything to shorten graduation ceremonies is nice.

        • ChrisI

          I get the impression a lot of students are reluctant to attend their own graduation ceremonies, and often only do so at the behest of their parents.

          • Scott Lemieux

            That was certainly true of me.

            • Carolannie1949

              Well, I did at the behest of my kids. Otherwise I did not attend any graduation ceremonies.

            • Hogan

              Me too.

            • Lee Rudolph

              And me (several decades earlier).

            • I didn’t attend mine – although to be fair, it was held during my first week on my new job, so attending was simply not possible.

            • BoredJD

              Walked at four graduations (jr. high, high school, college, law school). Had a smartphone with wireless connection for only the last one. That was the only bearable graduation.

            • Richard Hershberger

              I was more fortunate. My parents were relieved I didn’t expect them to attend, so long as I didn’t have to either.

            • MAJeff

              Me too…did all three for the parents.

      • RobertS

        Rice University used to have the same policy as CornellLawGrad says they had at Cornell. The university president used to good the big talk. But in 1990, George Rupp got up and gave a speech titled “There’s No Free Lunch” and there was practically rioting on the main quad. Jesus, talk about harshing a mellow.

        Next year they brought in an outside speaker, gave him an honorary or a medal or something, and AFAIK that’s the way it’s been since. Given Rice’s connections with James Baker, the speakers tended to be big names in government or foreign policy. It was James Earl Carter when I collected my PhD, and no I don’t remember a thing he said.

        • Jordan

          Nah, Rice doesn’t give honorary degrees, I don’t think.

          But they DO get big people to give talks at their James Baker school.

          When I was there they had Putin and Cheney. Each time they erected a gigantic fence roping off a large part of the campus. Because, you know, they didn’t want the very small number of students who might protest making a disturbance, I guess.

          (For Cheney, they didn’t want Houston making a disturbance. Instead, Houston ringed Rice’s campus with silent protester’s holding candles).

    • Paul Campos

      I don’t know anything about the specific practices of law schools in this regard, but just for the heck of it I looked up John Roberts’ most recent publicly available financial disclosure (2008), and it’s kind of interesting:

      (1) He got paid $10K to judge the moot court finals at Kansas, but did the same for Columbia and Pepperdine for nothing more than travel expenses. (Ken Starr was dean at Pepperdine at the time btw).

      (2) He got $15K from four bottom feeder law schools to teach a week long summer class in Innsbruck (plus travel expenses of course).

      • BoredJD

        Oh it was in Innsbruck this year? Was Malta not offering good package deals?

        Yeah the person organizing the Stone moot court program at Columbia was considered a dismal failure if they had to dip lower than a 2/7/9/DC.

      • Warren Terra

        Honestly, I’m most irritated by his taking money and perqs from bottom-feeder law schools to go to Innsbruck; I think his doing anything that lends the appearance of credibility to such institutions is disreputable, and doubly so when he does so at a special ski event in the Austrian Alps in the summer instead of at least interacting with their students on their campus during the school year.

        Anyone having anything to do with Pepperdine of course raises its own problems, but I assume his rabid Christianity explains if not excuses that.

        • Ann Outhouse

          I’m irritated that Supremos are allowed to have any outside income. If necessary, pay them more, but it shouldn’t be allowed. And that includes payment for “expenses”.

          • somethingblue

            Well, we could pass a law to that effect, but …

        • Manny Kant

          I don’t get why conservative Catholics would feel like they have much in common with Pepperdine. The worst thing about the early 21st century is the way that inter-sectarian rivalries among Christians are dissolving in the face of their decision to join together to hate on the non-religious.

          • PaulB


            The various religion groups are not getting together to hate on the non-religious. They are banding together to protect themselves from the hate that the non-religious (i.e., one Brian Leiter) are spewing toward them.

            • brettvk

              Yes, they have to band together to fight against the lynchings and church burnings taking place eveywhere across the country. Just this week, a Kansas Walmart greeter was gunned down in the parking lot for wearing a crucifix necklace, and two Chik-Fil-A’s and a Hobby Lobby were bombed in Missouri.

            • Walt

              God, if you’re afraid of Brian Leiter you’re a fucking wuss. Christian preachers say meaner things about atheists every goddamn day.

  • Nobdy

    $60,000 in travel expenses is pretty impressive. Even if you bring 5 other people with you that’s $10,000 each for a one day event. Would flying first class and staying in the best hotel in Boulder with individual rooms even get you that high?

    Regardless, this doesn’t exactly seem like elites scratching each other’s backs if the student government agreed to it. Rather it seems like clueless students willing to spend ridiculous amounts of money for a brush with fame. The market may be set by elites, but it seems like the students were willing to go along.

    Did Kofi at least return the favor by telling the students how to get rich on oil-for-food kickbacks?

    • Warren Terra

      Presumably the Student Government officers are willing to spend any amount of other peoples’ money to get that all-important picture with Kofi Annan, especially when the money was already allocated to bring in famous speakers, and if not spent will just go to waste and won’t be available next year.

      • Mondfledermaus

        When I start seeing this crazy amount of money being thrown around, I always think ‘what about the kickbacks?’

    • That seems pretty high. I think the best hotel in Boulder is the Boulderado — I assume they were there. Nice bar in the corner of the first floor, nice restaurant (Q’s), but I don’t know how you could spend ten grand in a day. Room service caviar to smear all over your body? A couple of cases of Dom Perignon to bath in? You’d have to work at it.

      • BigHank53

        Probably there for two nights. You don’t expect him to fly on the redeye, do you?

      • Paul Campos

        The St. Julien. Even an ordinary room there can run $600 per night with spa access. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve got suites that hit four figures.

        • Nobdy

          First class from New York to Denver and back is about $6,000 so throw in 2 days of limo service for $1,000 and 2 nights in a $1,500 suite and you can get to $10,000 without even starting in on meals.

          What do you want to bet the speech was packed with platitudes about the joys of public service and the importance of helping the less fortunate around the world?

          • PaulB


            Damn, were you at the speech also?

        • Ahh — that makes sense.

  • Small Potatoes…

    This is a sad state of affairs, but the reality is that families of graduates often enjoy the thrill and pomp of a name-brand headliner. Few are likely to make a fuss at the money which is small beans in the context of massive graduation festivities (just think of the grounds-keeping overtime budget in the weeks leading up to commencement ceremonies).

    In fact, most families would be more likely to complain if the headliner was a nobody. Relatives like to brag about who they saw speak when they get home…even if they can’t recall what was said…

    • BoredJD

      In a weird way it’s pretty decent marketing tool- you pay 100K, and you get word-of-mouth advertising from the parents and students that is likely to stick in people’s minds rather than just another shiny brochure.

      • Scott Lemieux

        I’m actually extremely dubious that the identity of the commencement speaker has any effect on recruitment. I think that’s a rationalization.

        • Small Potatoes…

          I agree with SL that the marketing benefit is very minimal. Maybe a mention or two in the adjacent news cycle (but shrinking news outlets usually just report about lots of commencement speakers so few stand out in any meaningful way), but I think the goodwill and fun it provides to the overall commencement festivities is extensive and palpable (it gets people talking and gives everyone a sense of anticipation – “Will Giuliani bring up 9-11…AGAIN?”) and it gives alumni magazine editors some great cover shots. Very few of us look forward to hearing wisdom from the poet laureate of Bolivia.

          • Manny Kant

            I went undergrad to UVA, where they don’t give out honorary degrees and probably don’t pay the commencement speakers, and we had pretty boring, lack lustre commencement speakers every year (Mark Warner! Various people nobody’s ever heard of!)

            As a grad student, I went to Penn, where they had some amazingly famous person every year (Jodie Foster, Bono, Kofi Annan, James Baker, Denzel Washington are the ones who come to mind), and all the undergrads ever did was complain about how whoever it was wasn’t good enough.

            • Manny Kant

              Also: they complained when Sonic Youth was the band at Spring Fling, and were excited when the next year it was O.A.R. Basically, Penn undergrads are the worst.

        • Stag Party Palin

          Anecdotes at ten paces, turn and fire.

        • Lee Rudolph

          So you don’t think that the honorary degree an extremely self-satisfied, self-promoting member of the junior class got Bob Dylan awarded at my graduation had any influence on future enrollments? Say it ain’t so!

  • randy khan

    I have a friend in the speaker bureau business, and most people would be surprised to know what in-demand speakers get paid. Most of the market, though, is not the college and university circuit, but is for corporate events. Someone who’s thought of as hot – a Tom Friedman in the “World is Flat” days, or Malcolm Gladwell after “Blink,” for instance – ends up turning down a lot more gigs than he or she takes, and that raises the price even more.

    Also, the budgets for speakers at colleges and universities can be pretty significant because even $5 a semester a student at a big state university turns into a 7-figure total. That money gets spread out among a bunch of events, and most speakers fall more into the $10,000 range, but at the top they’re competing with the corporate events, and that drives what people get paid.

    • Ronnie Pudding



      The lucrative lecture circuit may be the one thing that Mr. Friedman and his longtime antagonist Matt Taibbi have in common. In many thousands of bilious words over the years, Mr. Taibbi has savaged the Times columnist’s metaphors, ridiculed his worldview, insulted his mustache and worse. But when the $75,000 mistake happened, and readers inundated Mr. Taibbi with links to the news, eager for a fresh beat-down, he gave his favorite punching bag a pass. He didn’t say why.

      But the clearest sign of just how unobjectionable the new speaking-fee era is may be this: Last week, the Lavin Agency says, it signed Mr. Taibbi as a client.

      • NonyNony

        That reminds me – what happened to Taibbi? I haven’t read anything by him recently, and that generally means its because nobody has passed me a link to anything interesting he’s written.

        (I know he left Rolling Stone and went off somewhere but that was months ago and I can’t for the life of me remember where he went. It was to some startup wasn’t it? Google is failing me – it’s only coming up with his Rolling Stone stuff.)

        • Tom Scudder

          He’s part of the vast Glenn Greenwald media empire. (Or rather hired by the same guy who hired Greenwald). Apparently the magazine is in the works.

          • NonyNony

            That’s right I forgot – he’s moving into management. That’s why he hasn’t written anything recently – he’s been riding herd on writers to get his new magazine up and running.

        • jbj

          He has a new book: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Divide:_American_Injustice_in_the_Age_of_the_Wealth_Gap

          Maybe a pretext for hitting the lecture circuit for one more lap…

        • Tom Scudder

          Apparently he’s recently hired Alex Pareene. Could be good.


          • Another Holocene Human

            No, not Alex! Ya sold out, ya bum! (Of course, he rode that Salon gig into the ground. By which I mean Salon is busying trying to run itself into the ground. Time to boogy.)

        • Hoodie

          He’s signed on with Greenwald.

        • Tom Scudder

          And just for completeness’ sake, the news release announcing his move to First Look:


        • Joshua

          I just finished his new book. It’s a good read, especially if your doctor tells you your blood pressure is too low.

    • Frank Somatra

      I think the fascinating thing is why does a dental suppliers group feel the need to spend $80,000 on Malcolm Gladwell than a lavish cruise for 25 executives? Presumably, you only make that kind of error once.

    • RobertS

      IIRC, Carl Sagan was asking $25k in 1983 and getting it. Some whizbang calculator I just found on the intertubes says that’s $50k in current dollars.

      But as I was then attending a state university in a lesser populated Western state (it has a very large sky), the student government’s “lectures” committee couldn’t afford it. Damn.

      Best outside speaker I do recall hearing back then was Willie Fowler, Nobel laureate for physics in 1983 and a friend of one of my profs.

      • RobertS

        Oh, I forgot to mention. I eventually did hear Sagan speak, at a scientific conference in 1990. But he was just presenting a paper based on his group’s research, so it was 5 minutes, a minute or two of Q&A and then on to the next speaker’s paper.

      • BoredJD

        That’s the little people inflation calculator. At the rich people inflation rate that’s an easy six figures.

      • Ithaca is gorges

        Sagan needed the money to keep is house from falling down.

  • rw970

    Ah, commencement speeches. Where already rich and successful people get paid the value of a college tuition to receive the same degree that the assembled unwashed just put themselves into penury for.

    • Warren Terra

      Not the same degree; when given, it’s usually an honorary Doctorate, not a Bachelor’s.

    • Manny Kant

      Surely an honorary degree is not “the same degree.”

  • LeeEsq

    Its an educational Tammany Hall. At least Tammany gave us some nice looking buildings.

    • Richard Hershberger

      And baseball. The Mutual Base Ball Club of New York was a top club, and essentially sponsored by Tammany Hall in the late 1860s into the early 1870s. The club president for years was a fellow named Wildey, who was also the New York City coroner. This worked out well before baseball was openly professional, as he put players on the payroll of the coroner’s office. (Or, looking at this another way, he considered baseball so important that he devoted valuable patronage positions to it.) Boss Tweed himself showed up for games from time to time. I cannot prove that the arrest of Tweed is tied to the decline of the Mutuals, but the two happened about the same time.

  • Casual Observer

    This isn’t surprising. Having paid the equivalent of a well-heeled ransom to get a sheepskin, students want a headline speaker. With a handful of extremely notable exceptions (Steve Jobs at Stanford, etc), no one really remembers what the person says. Decades hence they recall that, oh yes, former President Clinton spoke at my commencement. The same scam goes on at large trade shows. Example, George W. Bush is the featured speaker at next years’s American Dental Association trade show. The national Realtors convention is featuring Astronaut Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords.

    Also, FWIW, no one pays $100,000 to hear B.B. King speak. People pay $100,000 to hear B.B. King make Lucille speak.

    • LeeEsq

      It would actually be really cool if King’s speech is done on his guitar.

      • Nobdy

        If that’s what you want then just bring in Peter Frampton.

    • JL

      Do students actually care that much about getting a headline speaker? I wasn’t thrilled about mine (the university’s previous president – we’d just gotten rid of him, why bring him right back to speak?) but mostly I wanted to walk up onto the stage and feel the thrill of triumph and accomplishment, which I did.

      • NewishLawyer

        I suspect YMMV

      • Joshua

        The thrill is gone, JL.

      • Bruce Baugh

        Yeah. I don’t know how much of this is just my parents’ New Deal Democratic values speaking through me, but I’m at a loss to imagine anyone I’d regard as worth $10K or $100K or whatever to hear talk at my graduation. (I’m very aware that I have some nigh-Dickensian bougeoisie in me.) As it is, I got to hear two students who’d won through interesting adversities to do worthwhile things, and that felt a lot more worthwhile.

    • dmsilev

      “Also, FWIW, no one pays $100,000 to hear B.B. King speak. People pay $100,000 to hear B.B. King make Lucille speak.”

      I’m reminded of an episode in the days of yore. Johannes Brahms was being awarded an honorary degree, and rather than delivering a speech he composed and conducted the Academic Festival Overture.

      • Another Holocene Human

        Wow, that was a memorable speech. There were times I decade ago I had that CD on repeat for hours!

      • MAJeff

        Damn, I’d be more likely to pay to hear Brahms speak than compose. That guy is a snoozefest.

        • Yeah, but Brahms is right next to Silent Hill, and that place is more exciting.

    • somethingblue

      George W. Bush is the featured speaker at next years’s American Dental Association trade show.

      The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

      • Pseudonym

        This honestly perplexes me. Are dentists really that reactionary?

        • Another Holocene Human

          The ones who get into it for the money are.

      • Bill Murray

        the tooth of the ADA is long, but it bends towards gingivitis

        • Joshua

          Rick Reilly™ ?

  • JDEsq

    Sometimes, graduation speakers are the only thing impressive about a school. The Southern California Institute of Law, on its main website page, advertises its impressive lineup of graduation speakers over the past few years, as opposed to, say, the people who teach the courses, run the school, or the students: http://www.lawdegree.com/

  • jbj

    I work at Duke and I’m told that the school inquired with Al Gore about speaking at an environmental policy conference (after “An Inconvenient Truth”) and the asking price was mid five figures. Duke decided it couldn’t justify that at the time.

    • manual

      This doesnt sound like the Duke I went to, but good on them.

  • Oscar Goldman

    They serve gin at Catacombs?

    • Cols714

      Sad but true, the Catacombs is no more.

  • N__B

    For 100K, I hope Rudy gave his speech in drag.

  • mark f

    A few weeks back Ezra Klein highlighted a list of 10 or 12 points that were “everything you need to know about economics” or some such. It was authored by some august expert in the field, though whether it was really the One True Econ Seminar did get some pushback from some of the econ/finance writers I follow on Twitter. The kicker, though, was that it was culled from this asshole’s commencement address to the undergrads at Berkeley. Granted, it was pithy. But is this the kind of shit I want to hear while I’m waiting to get my picture taken with grandma before getting blotto?:

    8. Governments and voters respond to incentives too. That is why governments sometimes default on loans and other promises that they have made.

    If I ever get famous enough to give one of these addresses I’m taking my hundred large and leaving it at “Plastics.”

    • Casual Observer


      You could always get blotto before giving your speech, and then just see what flows when you approach the podium.

      Drunken commencement address sure as shit beats, “you are our future. the road of opportunity awaits. take what you’ve learned and grow from it. you have core skills now that will serve you. remember the lessons that you learned at [insert university here] when you’re leaders in government, in the board room, in the research lab, etc.”

      • pedantic nerd

        “I still remember the speech you gave at my high school graduation: ‘I just drank a fifth of Wild Turkey and my wife doesn’t know I’m here. Any of you girls over 18?'”

        “Heh heh heh. I still give that speech today.”

    • NonyNony

      If I ever get famous enough to give one of these addresses I’m taking my hundred large and leaving it at “Plastics.”

      If I were ever invited to give one of these, I’d do the following:

      Stand up and say “I don’t know why the hell I’m up here – you guys are the ones that have put in the hard work for the last 4-6 years of your lives to earn this degree. Why should I be giving you an inspirational speech? You should be giving me and all of the other slackers in the audience here a goddamn inspirational speech. We’re the ones that need it.” And then lead everyone in a rousing song of some sort.

      Because I wish that that was what had happened at my own commencement.

      • Gary Trudeau gave my undergrad commencement speech and said two things I remember. The first was more or less your wish and the second was “distrust authority, including the authority of someone speaking to you from the podium.” It made the day bearable.

    • laura

      It was Tom Sargent who is a wizard in his field and a moderate Democrat in his politics. It was also from 2007 and very audience-specific. But, no, students at Berkeley don’t need to be lectured about their political beliefs at graduation (they’ve just been through four years of university at which one hopes they’ve learned some critical thinking; you’re not going to change their minds with slogans at the graduation ceremony) and it most definitely was not “everything you need to know about economics”.

      • mark f

        I’m sure he’s a great guy. Perfect teeth, nice smell, a class act. But the only thing unobnoxious about the speech was its brevity.

        • laura

          The speech was no more obnoxious than the usual graduation speech in which outside speakers pontificate about the facts of life to students who don’t give a shit. If you invite Tom Sargent, you get Tom Sargent’s philosophy of life, which will be highly offensive to some. If you invite Al Gore, you get Al Gore’s philosophy of life, which would be highly offensive to others. Better to save your money and go with neither of them.

          • mark f

            That is precisely what I’m saying.

    • Alex

      Honestly I don’t even see the point in most speeches. Just email me the text if there’s anything important to learn.

  • What would it cost for a team of male & female hookers to bestow oral sex on each member of the graduating class as he or she is called to the front to pick up the diploma?

    Less than $160K, I’d bet, and a helluva lot more memorable … inspiring even.

    • Manny Kant

      For a class of 2000, at $50 a pop, it’d be 100K. Don’t know how realistic that price rate is, though. It’d cost more than 160K at a big school like Ohio State, but considerably less at most of the more elite private schools.

      • BoredJD

        “at $50 a pop”

        Please tell me this was intentional.

      • I’m pretty sure one could negotiate a group discount, Manny.

        • … I don’t know *why* I’m pretty sure, never having explored the price of head.

          But it’s the internet, so I am very confident in my invented data.

  • AB

    At the University of Chicago only academics receive honorary degrees. There’s an old story on campus that when visiting Chicago early in her reign Elizabeth II was passed over for an honorary degree for want of scholarly qualification.

    • Stag Party Palin

      No, it was because she didn’t know that UC is the only Big-Ten team that never lost to Notre Dame. Some things cannot be forgiven.

  • NewishLawyer

    My undergrad commencement speaker was Tony Kushner. This was neat because my senior project for Drama was a production of Angels in America as a dramaturg. I suspect this is partially why he was asked FWIW, he gave a really good speech. In previous and subsequent years, speeches were done by famous parents of people who just happened to be graduating that year like Stephen King, Nora Ephron, Samuel Jackson, and Tom Hanks.

    I didn’t care about the graduate speaker for my Masters and only went to the larger university wide graduation (in Madison Square Garden) because my mom wanted me to. The original commencement speaker became ill and there was a pinch hitter. It was not great.

    My law school commencement speaker was a justice to the California Supreme Court and an grad of the law school.

    Amamda Hess had a great article in Slate yesterday about commencement speakers and how this is one thing schools can do to justify their expensive tuition and this also causes the protests when the commencement speaker is someone that the student body finds objectionable like Condelezza Rice. I don’t know how one can prove whether most students would ditch the ceremony or not. I generally liked all of mine except the really big one for my Masters because my grad school existed in the outer orbit of the general university in a huge city. I had no connection to the overall university except one class in the main building because of overflow. I even mainly used the library at another universities libraries for research.

  • laura

    imo, outside convocation / graduation speakers are a bad idea in general. I was at one given at a smallish Canadian university a couple of years ago given by the president who decided to share his views on the development of the tar sands (strongly pro). Whatever you think of the tar sands development personally, it’s heavily insulting to students who *oppose* the development to have to listen to a pro-tar-sands rant at *their* graduation, and it was totally irrelevant to the issue of the day: “congratulations on your degree! Yay!”. Universities do and should host all sorts of optional outside talks. The money spent bringing people in could be spent on perks (photographers, food/booze at the reception) that make the event better for the students.

    • laura

      * i.e. the money spent bringing people in for graduation addresses

  • NewishLawyer

    Out of curiosity:

    What do people propose as alternatives to commencement speakers?

    • BoredJD

      Have the student body president, a professor voted by the students, and the dean/president speak. 5-7 minutes per speaker max.

      • laura


      • Bruce Baugh

        That would work great for me.

      • RobertS

        I don’t know. They had a couple student speakers when I attended my niece’s graduation at Bowdoin a couple years ago and I remember one of them being about as dumb as anything I’d ever heard on a PA system.

        • BoredJD

          A good solution to that is point 3 on Oregon Beer Snob’s list. In fact let’s ditch the speakers and just do that.

      • In the UK, at Manchester at least, we have the dean of faculty and maybe the head of school. The speech is boring but short. It’s a complete advertisement. But short.

        We don’t have a university plenary commencement, though.

        I skipped out of my college one but Wesleyan had Desmond Tutu and my mom really wanted to go.

        I don’t know if it drives new students, but I think it might solidify some alumni and get some gifts.

      • Pseudonym

        My graduation just featured a speech by a former provost. But it was still controversial, though not as much as when she was invited to speak at Rutgers.

    • 1) Give a pair of diplomas to each of a pair of students, with a photo, as the graduating folks arrive.
      2) Have a big old party.
      3) Provide beer.
      4) To get your diploma, you have to find your match.
      5) …
      6) PROFIT!

      • To quote Gypsy, “Let’s have an or-gee.”

  • Alex

    I don’t think it’s just about rich people giving each other money. A lot of it has to do with star-fuckery, and there really are only so many respectable stars to go around that thousands of colleges and universities are bidding on.

    Our class didn’t have a graduation speaker due to poor planning, but it really did seem like the point was to get a picture of someone famous and impress your grandmother. The discussions of who to invite at the last minute had little to do with looking for a good public speaker or someone who would say something interesting and more to do with getting someone it would be cool to meet.

  • BoCo

    Bill Clinton once received $750,000 for one speech. Over the past 11 years, he was earned 89 million from speeches (average of 189K per)

    • Lee Rudolph

      Generously, I will assume that only 90% (and not 100%) of the money Clinton is paid for speechifying is value added to the ex-Governor of Arkansas by his now being ex-President of the United States. Therefore I call for only 90% (and not 100%) of his speaking fees to be expropriated by the Federal Government and used for the common weal.

      Same should apply to ALL government-paid-for value-added, e.g., income paid to legislators-turned-lobbyists, generals-turned-consultants-to-weapons-makers, etc., etc., particularly when the value is added solely because of WHO they know, not WHAT they know; but also (as in the cases, one assumes, of generals and colonels and so on) when much of WHAT they know is what they learned doing their government job.

      Won’t happen, alas.

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  • ASV

    My school recently paid $50K to bring in Doris Kearns Goodwin to speak (not as a graduation speaker, just a regular “Doris Kearns Goodwin is speaking on campus tonight” lecture). When this came out in the local media, it was rationalized away as having been funded by some complex tapestry of sources, and anyway the money “couldn’t be used” for anything else.

    FWIW, we have basically quit funding conference travel for grad students, among other things.

    • Look, what’s really important about a university is the provost and president getting photo-ops with famous people.

    • Another Holocene Human

      When this came out in the local media, it was rationalized away as having been funded by some complex tapestry of sources, and anyway the money “couldn’t be used” for anything else.

      I love that scam. Never gets old.

    • somethingblue

      For less than a tenth of that you could have gotten one of the research assistants who actually write her books.

  • J

    A different blogger once did a good piece examining blowout speaking fees for quasi-government/former government figures [in the aforementioned piece, it was David Plouffe who was an important person in President Obama’s campaigns] and how it basically constitutes a bribe.

  • Andrew

    Hey Paul, did you hear that Scalia quoted you in the commencement speech he gave at William & Mary law?


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