Sunday, January 11, 2015

Commencement, Honor vs. Greed

$47,500 to speak at a commencement address. And I thought that the invitation to give a commencement address was an honor in itself. But not for Michigan State University (MSU) and George Will. It will be interesting to see if the market for commencement speakers will be driven higher.

There was a similar hubbub in 2011when New Jersey state legislators proposed a ban on commencement speaker fees after Rutgers offered Toni Morrison $30,000 and Musician John Legend received $25,000 for serenading graduates at Keane University's 2011 graduation ceremony. An Inside Higher Education article from the same spring commencement season noted that the figures have gone much higher. Katie Couric, the $15 million a year newscaster, received $110,000 from University of Oklahoma in 2006 and Rudy Giuliani received $75,000 and now regularly requires $100,000 plus a private jet according to the article.The real irony of this greed game, is that the people receiving these funds are generally very well off and don't need the exorbitant payoffs.

I remember the catharsis I suffered from years ago as I invited speakers to campus.,trying to assess with very small budgets how much to pay folks adequately for their service while trying to responsibly manage a budget. As a rookie at this, I often succumbed to the demand of the speaker, assuming it was within my ability to cover the costs. (Additional costs for speakers typically include travel, lodging, and meals). What started to shift my thinking was a response I received from an invited speaker to my question about how much they needed to receive to make the trip. It came as I was developing a weekly speakers series over 12 weeks. And the response was from a senior woman scholar in her field. She said, "Beyond travel costs, I don't care as long as it is equal to any male you are paying." My immediate reaction was, wow, why didn't I think of that egalitarian approach. And of course, I did make sure she received at least as much as any male we invited that semester.

But of course this whole paying for speakers is much more complicated calculus. Like the commencement addresses, all the speaking events I organized were free and open to the public. So there was no cost recovery option one might use like charging an admission fee. How long will they be visiting? Is the speech their only required activity while visiting? Or will they be visiting classes, meeting with others? How long does the travel back and forth take and thus how much of their time is tied up in visiting with us? These factors all play a part. Likewise, many speakers use their speaking funds to raise money for organizations they lead, especially the case with non-profits.

One of the reasons price escalate for popular speakers is that the demand for their time goes up, and one way to  suppress a demand that they can't meet, is to raise prices for their services. Towards the end of my tenure as one responsible for bringing speakers to campus I developed what I thought was a fair bottom line approach.. Beyond travel expenses I decided that an offer of $1,500 a day for each day of speaking was an adequate wage based upon the following logic.If one just did speaking and received $1,500 a day and spoke five times a week  for 50 weeks they would pull in $375,000 year. Not a bad salary. Enough to put them in our lofty one percent elite, not to mention being well-fed. But heck, even if they only gave one speech a week they'd tally $75,000 a year, 50% higher than the median HOUSEHOLD income.

But back to commencement speakers' fees. Being asked to give a commencement address, whether at a high school, college or university is an honor. And often the honor is added to by the receipt of an honorary degree. Other than travel costs, there should be no honorarium, as it taints the whole idea of  honor by its purchase. I'd suggest that those who are invited to give commencement addresses should feel honored whether they receive an honorary degree or not. And those who seek to be compensated for expenses beyond their travel costs should not be given a podium. There won't be any shortage of available thoughtful commencement speakers. Michel Moore who gave one of the other commencement addresses the same weekend at MSU received and sought nothing. His behavior is not an uncommon one. Let's hope that MSU and other public educational institutions end this greedy practice. If private institutions want to pay outlandish fees for a 15 minute speech, it's their money.