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.