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Editorial

Commencement speakers shouldn't cash in

Commencement speakers should share their rich experience with graduates for no charge.

April 11, 2011

There are few occasions in life more idyllic than college graduation. Steeped in ceremony, it is the moment of triumph after years of work, a time for parents to beam proudly and gowned students to receive their hard-earned diplomas.

However, graduates aren't the only ones earning something on commencement day. Some colleges and universities are paying exorbitant fees — not just expenses — for graduation speakers. Public speaking has been big business for years, and finding a great speaker for commencement day is a competitive business, particularly for a school burnishing its image and trying to boost fundraising. Rutgers University, which is planning a bigger ceremony this year, recently announced that it will pay Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison $30,000 to be the commencement speaker. "An honorarium was required to attract a stellar speaker of Ms. Morrison's caliber," said Rutgers spokesman Ken Branson.

Morrison is only one example. In 2006, CBS news star Katie Couric got $115,000 to speak at the University of Oklahoma's ceremony — although she did donate it to a cancer center at the University of Virginia in honor of her late sister. And Rudy Giuliani's 2005 address at High Point University in North Carolina reportedly cost the school $75,000 in a contribution to a foundation of his choice.

Some speakers who command astronomical fees will discount them for commencement speeches — it's possible that Morrison usually gets much more than $30,000 — or waive them. Bill Clinton, who was scheduled to speak at UCLA in 2008 before canceling because of the university's dispute with a union, did not request a fee. Nor would UCLA have offered one. (It never pays.) Neither President Obama nor the first lady are paid for their commencement addresses. This year, the president will deliver the address at Miami Dade College's North Campus, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the public high school that wins the White House's Race to the Top Commencement Challenge. Michelle Obama will speak at Spelman College, the University of Northern Iowa and the high school that serves children of members of the military on the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va.

We know it's a struggle for lesser-known schools to find a speaker a cut above a dreary dean talking in cliches about the challenges to come. But it's disappointing to see a tradition so wrapped in idealism become yet another vehicle for commercialism.

A commencement address is not a gig at a corporate retreat. Even though it takes time and effort to craft a good speech, it is honor enough to be chosen to impart some words of inspiration to newly minted graduates. We'd like to see influential figures go out of their way to speak at smaller institutions for free. Commencement day is one time when accomplished people should share the wealth — not increase their own.

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