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

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


Comments () | Archives (16)

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Jeannette Bronson

Considering that Snooki got paid $32000 to speak at a non commencement speech yesterday, I think Toni Morrison is getting a raw deal.


Since education is lacking in this country compared to many industrialized countries maybe it would be a good thing for all colleges to say they won't pay for commencement speakers.

Successful people should be willing to give something to students without needing to be paid for it.

Greed and selfishness seem to be at all time highs in the U.S.


Since education is lacking in this country compared to many industrialized countries maybe it would be a good thing for all colleges to say they won't pay for commencement speakers.

Successful people should be willing to give something to students without needing to be paid for it.

Greed and selfishness seem to be at all time highs in the U.S.


I had to pay to go to my graduation. What gives?


Judged by her apparent girth she probably needs the money for more food.

Tim James

Seeing that you are neither paying the money nor having to fit the appearance into your schedule, you are not in a position to tell the rest of the world what to do with their money (oops, sorry, I forgot who I was dealing with). In terms of Michelle, I do not know the rules for first ladies receiving payment are, but the President is prohibited from receiving such a payment. So please do not attempt to paint Mr. Obama as magnanimous. Presidents typically give 3-4 commencement addresses per year anyway.

Alice D. Millionaire

It seems normal to me that people get paid for speaking engagements, commencements, etc., and that Michell Obama doesn't get paid because she's the First Lady.I'm not pissed that my alma mater paid for James Earl Jones to speak, although he did plug Verizon by starting his speech with "Can you hear me now?". Why on earth anyone would expect people of accomplishment to just come when summoned without any kind of token of appreciation is beyond me. You can buy a Toni Morrison novel for $7 or less if you go to any used bookstore. That's about as cheap as she comes. And Snooki, well, she pretty much gives it away in so many other ways...

Philip in Paris

Since the university that invites a famous commencement speaker is hoping to generate publicity (fair enough), the commencement speech becomes a kind of commercial endorsement and it seems logical to me that a speaker would charge for this. Afterwards, s/he may decide to donate rather than keep the speaking fee, but isn't philanthropy nicer when it's spontaneous rather than dictated by peer pressure?


Before dropping some hate on those who are given speaking fees for a commencement address, contemplate this: Would you work for 16-20 hours without getting paid? Now contemplate the time involved with travel to, preparation for, execution of, and travel back from a commencement speech. $30K, well that is a big number, but time is money folks. And as commented before, Snooki, famous for giving things away for free, got paid more than that for her little talk...


You get what you pay for.


The Obama's a bargain? Not to the taxpayers footing the bill for the use of Marine One, Air Force One, and extensive pre visit and and during visit security. $30,000 sounds like pocket change compared to the likely hundreds of thousands of dollars the taxpayers will pay to get the Obama's to their speaking engagements.


I bet you didn't mind when George Bush spoke at various graduations, did you Jeff. That is what Presidents and First Ladies do. It's part of the job. Obama did give up the throwing out of the first baseball of the season though. He's been a little busy in the White House, and that seemed too frivolous.

When I graduated from college at Northridge, I got some guy from Richard Nixon's administration. I don't remember which crook it was, but he was boring.


I suspect Toni Morrison is worth the $30K. But even worse that that, Snooki is being paid $32,ooo for a university appearance. What's up with that?


I wish Obama would visit Butler University's locker room if they win --

now that would be sweet. Shoot the three.

Tess Quadra

I am shocked to find that commencement speakers actually get paid to speak at graduation ceremonies.They should have waived the fees or donated it to a scholarship fund.


Bill Clinton intended to waive fees had he spoken at a school that would not have paid him anyways?

What a philanthropist and a hero.



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