Colleges Pay Huge Honoraria for Commencement Speakers

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Commencement addresses are big news in America. Who’s speaking where?

First lady Michelle Obama will this year be speaking at the graduation ceremonies at the University of Northern Iowa, Spelman College, and West Point. Such colleges were very lucky to secure Mrs. Obama this year, especially because, as the first lady, Michelle Obama speaks for free.

According to an article by Richard Perez-Pena in the New York Times, many colleges pay dearly to secure famous people to give commencement addresses in May. As Perez-Pena writes:

For generations, an honorary degree was reward enough at most colleges and universities; if schools paid any money, it was usually for the speaker’s lodging or travel expenses. But more substantial honoraria are becoming common, and experts say that hundreds of schools have paid them — though quietly. Colleges and speakers’ bureaus are reluctant to discuss the arrangements.

Fees ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 are fairly standard, and some speakers receive more, said Mark Castel, president of AEI Speakers Bureau in Boston.

Rutgers University, for instance, will this year pay the novelist Toni Morrison (above) $30,000 to speak to the graduating class.

This is the same school that canceled scheduled pay raises and froze the salaries of 13,000 employees last June, explaining that it was facing an “extreme fiscal crisis” and was not required to honor the contract with employees it had agreed to earlier in the year.

Rutgers said that Morrison’s honorarium, equivalent to roughly 84 percent of the annual salary paid to a Rutgers University laborer or clerical worker, would not come out of tuition or state appropriations. According to Perez-Pena, the fee comes “from a vending contract with PepsiCo.”

Under the contract, however, Rutgers was free to spend that $30,000 on academic programs; it was not specifically earmarked for graduation ceremonies. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer