$30K to pretend she cares

Toni Morrison will be paid $30,000 to speak at the Rutgers commencement this spring. Key quote from the New York Times piece on the emerging practice of paying commencement speakers: “Spokesmen for the university said Ms. Morrison’s fee would not come out of money provided by the state or tuition paid by students, but from a vending contract with PepsiCo, though that is still money that could have gone into academic programs.”

An honorary degree, modest honorarium, and expenses should be enough, shouldn’t it? Especially at a time when, by Rutgers’ own account, the university is coping with severe budget shortfalls. I’m betting part of the thinking here is that bringing in Morrison at graduation will bring in far more than her fee in alumni gifts. Someone is talking about all the great press this will bring, about the alumni appeals that can be made on the back of Morrison’s appearance, about slipping copies of her speech–which, for $30K, will certainly shower praise-filled rhetoric on Rutgers and its grads–into the begging letter packets that go out to alums. Still, the pandering is sad. And it’s deeply unpleasant to see Morrison sell herself like that. Speakers’ fees are one thing. But I think commencement should be something else.

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  1. Eveningsun says:

    I agree, Erin (that is, I wish higher ed were something other than what the bean-conters are making it). But apparently this sort of thing is not new: http://www.thebigmoney.com/articles/diploma-mill/2009/06/01/may-wind-be-your-back-and-cash-be-my-pocket?page=0,0.

    Fees apparently can range as high as $75,000, and total expenses as high as $300,000.

  2. Erin O'Connor says:

    Interesting. I think it would be worth thinking about what we mean by “new.” The examples in your linked article are all quite recent. And the NYT reports that this is a practice that is becoming more common and more the norm than it formerly was. (It also notes, though, that it’s been historically hard to pin down whether schools are paying for commencement speakers and how much.)

  3. AB says:

    At least among the public, the presumed targets of the fundraising and goodwill, Morrison is only semi-famous. There must be plenty of people in that category available for a good deal less.

  4. david foster says:

    Why pay any of ‘em? I’m sure you could get speakers **for free** who are thoughtful individuals, good talkers, and have done impressive things, although not yet famous enough to be regulars on the paid-speaker circuit (and probably too busy, also)….speakers like this would also tend to be younger and probably easier for the audience to identify with.

    Why would a university feel a need to be blessed by a celebrity?

  5. Eveningsun says:

    It’s a celebrity endorsement.

    There are lots of people who, for very little cost, could explain the virtues of Nike shoes. But we all understand why Nike pays so much to have its product endorsed by Michael Jordan.

    We can’t demand that higher ed run itself like a business and then complain when it complies.

  6. david foster says:

    Depends what you’re selling, ES. If I’m running a shoe company, it may make sense to pay Michael Jordan to do the endorsements. If I’m selling machine tools to manufacturing managers, it probably doesn’t, even though many of them are probably Michael Jordan fans.

    I doubt if the reputation of Toni Morrison (or of Al Gore, to take another even-more-expensive commencement speaker) rubs off on the hiring university in anything like the same way that Michael Jordan’s reputation associates itself with Nike.

  7. Eveningsun says:

    It occurs to me that the $30,000-plus-expenses Columbia is paying Morrison is about 75 percent of a year’s tuition ($40,000 or so for 15 credits). Annual tuition at my own little college is about $3,000, while we typically shell out $2,000 to $2,500 for our own speakers. (Our speakers are usually successful alumni who speak sans honorarium; we get them for the cost of flying them out here to the boonies and putting them in nice digs for a few days). So I wonder if there’s a kind of generally linear relation between tuition and commencement-speaker cost, and if so how far back it goes and what might explain it.

  8. Erin O'Connor says:

    Ah — but it’s not Columbia that is hiring Morrison, it’s Rutgers. Tuition and fees for spring and fall 2011 for NJ residents is around $13K. Add $10K for room and board if you want to live on campus. I don’t think Columbia has announced its commencement speaker yet ….

  9. jason says:

    Erin, check out the entry “I Know How Much It Costs for the Caged Bird to Sing.” at http://irascibleprofessor.com/comments-03-31-05.htm It’s not about commencement speakers, but it covers the same problem. This exact thing happened at my school:
    Our college learned some bitter lessons during the mid-l990s when an agent for Maya Angelou got in touch with the Dean’s office and passed along the news that Ms. Angelou would be in our area a few months from now and that she would be willing to give a reading at the college for the bargain basement rate of somewhere between 21 and 24 thousand dollars — that is, if we acted within the next business day. Many of our students knew her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bid Sings (it was hard to avoid during those years), and millions of people had heard her read a poem at President Clinton’s second Inaugural.

    I don’t know if bitter lessons were learned, but we paid 33,000.

  10. Eveningsun says:

    Oops–my mistake. So much for my new career as an economist.

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