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Costly Commencement addresses: Toni Morrison gets big bucks while Obamas go gratis

April 1, 2011 |  6:30 am

Toni Morrison-Blog College graduation day is a monumental occasion -- parents beaming, graduates donning caps and gowns to pick up their hard-earned diplomas. It turns out it's also a day when some speakers are making a monumental amount of money.  Rutgers University recently announced that Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison would be paid $30,000 to give the school's commencement address.

She's not the only famous person getting paid for a commencement speech. Some prominent people will lower their fees (it's possible Morrison commands more on the lecture circuit) or waive them altogether to deliver the graduation speech -- as former President Bill Clinton intended to do three years ago when he almost spoke at UCLA's graduation. (A dispute between the university and a labor union prompted him to cancel his planned appearance as the speaker. His office said he wouldn't cross a picket line.) Nor would the university have offered him any money. UCLA does not pay graduation speakers. This year's speaker at UCLA's commencement will be Peace Corps director Aaron Williams.

But 30% of colleges and universities will pay for a commencement speaker, estimates Michael Frick, president of Speakers Platform. Usually the school is hoping some reflected light from a prominent speaker will shine on the institution. It's also a good fundraising tool.

We sympathize with schools offering the money in an attempt to get the best speaker they can. But as we say in an upcoming editorial, we're not so pleased that people actually take the money.

By the way, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will be on the graduation circuit with three commencement speeches apiece. You guessed it -- neither of them accepts fees for those speeches. The president will  deliver the address at Miami Dade College's North Campus, the Coast Guard, and the public high school that wins the White House's Race to the Top Commencement Challenge -- a contest in which schools compete to show how well they prepare students for college and careers. Meanwhile, Michelle Obama will speak at Spelman College in Atlanta, the University of Northern Iowa, and the high school that serves military children on the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va.

Schools vying for speakers might want to take a page out of George Washington University's playbook.  The school snagged Michelle Obama after pledging to her that they would log 100,000 hours of community service if she would be their commencement speaker in 2010. She accepted their invitation.

-- Carla Hall

Photo: Toni Morrison. Credit: David Umberger / Associated Press

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