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05/30/2017

Not So “All Right, All Right, All Right”: The Ethics of Commencement Speakers’ Fees

by Kayhan Parsi, JD, PhD

We are currently ensconced in graduation season. Having worked over fifteen years as a professor, I’ve been to my share of commencements. I typically enjoy these events, as they provide an opportunity to celebrate graduates’ accomplishments and allow family members to bask in the pride of their loved one’s newly acquired degree. Although these events may seem interminable to some, our school has successfully whittled these down to a humane length—typically no longer than 90 minutes (and sometimes even shorter). One part of the event, however, that consistently raises controversy is the commencement speaker (or, to be more precise, their fees).

Recently, for instance, Northeastern Illinois University had agreed to pay Valerie Jarrett $30K for a commencement speech. Considering that this school has been struggling financially and primarily serves an underserved community, many were disturbed by the amount being given to Jarrett. After a firestorm of criticism, Jarrett declined her fee (she reported that she did not know about the school’s financial troubles). After this incident, I was curious about what other speakers command. I learned that fees ranged from $10K for Rita Moreno to $40K for Ali Wentworth (who played the Schmoopie girl on Seinfeld).   The standout recipient recently was Matthew McConaughey, who received $135K for speaking at the University of Houston (he planned to donate his fee to charity). Although the practice of rich celebrities donating their fees to charity may make this practice more palatable, the question is why? Why would any university (especially one struggling financially) procure a rich celebrity to speak for 15 minutes? Some argue that this is valuable PR for lesser-known institutions. But, really. Would someone consider going to the University of Houston simply because McConaughey was a commencement speaker? Such an assertion seems laughable (although Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich recently wrote, such “logic seems loopy but it’s believable.”)

Instead of getting high-priced speakers for commencement, why not get a less well-known academic, community activist, or some other unsung hero? Or invite an alumnus from the school who can reflect upon their education and how it shaped their life and career? Better yet, should we just dispense with the ritual of commencement speaker altogether? In all of the commencement speeches I’ve heard over the years, only one truly soared above the bromides and platitudes delivered by most commencement speakers. That speech was given by Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. He wove together personal anecdotes with literary and religious allusions and implored our graduates to consider their professional roles as newly minted physicians in the quest for social justice. His speech was touching, even moving. But this commencement speech was the exception.

Perhaps we should take the advice of Sarah Lawrence professor Nicolaus Mills, who recommended that we should simply have a professor and student from the school address the graduating students, followed by a reception where everyone spent time getting to know one another and actually talk to each other. Such a solution would stop the arms race of colleges and universities paying more and more for commencement speakers who have no connection to the schools they are addressing and make this important ritual more meaningful for everyone involved.

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