As the class of 2016 finishes up final exams (ugh) and prepares to graduate, schools across the country are announcing their commencement speakers — an A-list cast of government officials, industry titans, and celebrities who will dispense their wisdom at upcoming ceremonies.
A school’s commencement speaker is chosen based on what he or she would impart to new graduates, sure, but this is also a branding decision: If you can reel in a big fish, your school is all but guaranteed heaps of positive press attention, not to mention the boost in reputation that comes with having your logo on the podium in front of a household name.
Some of these commencement speakers come at a steep cost to universities. With shrinking budgets and tuition on the rise, the graduation speaker is one area where some schools will still shell out big bucks. The University of Houston paid $135,000 last year for their graduates to be inspired by none other than Matthew McConaughey.
This year, most schools are mum about large speaker fees, releasing only the information about relatively modest sums. The University of Minnesota will pay a total of $10,500 to a former Minneapolis mayor, a surgeon, and the president of the Sage Colleges. The most high-profile speakers at the Minnesota ceremonies, Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, will not be paid for their speeches, but will be reimbursed for their travel expenses.
The president and first lady also do not charge for their speeches, but the cost of additional security as well as travel for their staff and security detail runs into the tens of thousands of dollars.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, one of Hillary Clinton’s former State Department policy aides, will deliver commencement addresses at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Barnard College. While the exact amount of her fees has not been disclosed, SpeakerPedia’s records place her fee around $30,000 per event.
Rutgers University hired longstanding PBS journalist Bill Moyers to address the graduates, to the tune of $35,000. The New Jersey school also extended an invitation to President Obama, and when the White House confirmed that he would address the class of 2016, Mr. Moyers was shifted to a smaller convocation ceremony (for the same speaking fee).
Other schools go the entertainment route. UGA graduates will hear from Ryan Seacrest, who attended the university for one year. Seattle Seahawk Russell Wilson will speak at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. (Teammate Marshawn Lynch, famous for repeating “I’m just here so I don’t get fined,” has not yet been hired for any graduation speeches.) Hoda Kotb, of Today Show day-drinking fame, will speak at Tulane University. Matt Damon will address graduates at MIT next month (and if he doesn’t include something about being a janitor and solving equations left on the chalkboard, he will have missed a golden opportunity). Fees for these speeches have not yet been released. While superstars can donate their time, they can also demand top dollar for gracing the stage at huge, high-profile events like these.
Fees for a graduation speaker can easily reach a year’s tuition. Though everyone likes a good speech — especially to lighten up a long, formal ceremony — and an industry veteran can impart impactful wisdom to the newly-minted graduates, it’s hard to justify a big investment in a celebrity appearance.