Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Commencement Speaker Rights and Wrongs

Rutgers University once again has made the news for a speaker invitation. Some 50 students occupied a stairway in the administration building protesting selection of former presidential advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as this year's commencement speaker.

The protesters left peacefully after an ultimatum by school administrators. Outside the building, some of them joined about 100 others carrying signs and shouting slogans criticizing Miss Rice's role in starting the second Iraq war. Meanwhile, 350 faculty members voted to oppose the campus appearance. So far, the school president is sticking with the speaker selection, citing academic freedom and free speech ideals as his justification.

University officials had a right to invite anyone they chose to speak at the school.

Students and faculty had a right to peacefully protest the selection.
A peaceful protest made the students' point.
The geezer fully supports those rights. What is wrong is the fact that Miss Rice will be paid $35,000 for her half-hour speech. Like many other universities, Rutgers has been going through tough financial times. Economy measures in recent years included freezing the salaries of thousands of employees and many program reductions.

That Miss Rice's fee will be paid by private donations to the university's foundation doesn't make it right. That the fee is modest on the scale of commencement awards, which range from about $2,500 to more than $100,000, doesn't make it right. All commencement speaking fees are wrong. That money could be better spent helping needy students with expenses or supporting essential academic programs.

Any potential speaker with a sense of public service responsibility should be willing to honor a graduating class with his or her words of wisdom for nothing more than travel expenses. An honorary degree (and Miss Rice will get one of those, too) of course is a justifiable speaker reward.

Rather than fixing the problem, Rutgers has raised the ante. Back in 2011 it paid the commencement speaker only $30,000. That wasn't newsworthy, but when students used $32,000 of their activity fees to pay for an appearance by Snooki, infamous as a vulgar sex kitten on the "Jersey Shore" television show, Rutgers got a dose of media attention. Snooki told her audience to "party hard," among other things.

Paying a sex object more than a commencement speaker perhaps is justified. I've fidgeted through several lengthy graduation ceremonies. I can't remember a word any of the distinguished speakers uttered. I probably would have paid much more attention to Snooki.

U.S. higher education cries out for reform. A small, but good, start would be rerouting speaker fees to deserving students and academic programs.


Tom Sightings said...

I agree wholeheartedly. I suggest the Rutgers senior class boycott graduation -- not because they disagree with Rice's politics, but because the university is giving her so much of their tuition money. (And maybe the administrators responsible for paying her should be fired for dereliction of their fiduciary responsibility.) No wonder people graduate from college with too much debt!

schmidleysscribblins.com said...

I personally have a problem with those who protest over what they might hear a a commencement. I have ducked out of the past several graduation ceremonies, including my own. Some people don't do dusting or attend funerals. I don't do graduation ceremonies. As for left leaning people who cannot listen to what the other guy has to say...shame on them. Ditto right wingers,as Lou Dobbs used to say...this bird won't fly.

Re commencement fees...if the alums are paying, they should have a say. Terrible waste of student activity $$. This post you've written is fair and balanced. Thanks.

PiedType said...

I can understand in certain circumstances (not graduations) you might want to pay/entice a specific person to come speak because you want to hear his or her thinking on a specific topic. But to pay some big wig a big fee to come deliver the same old "rah rah the world is your oyster" commencement speech is ridiculous. Nobody really listens to or cares what is said, and it could just as easily (and more appropriately) be said by the president of the university. Tuitions are high enough already without spending them on things that do not directly advance the education of the students. And I would think alums would want their donations used that way as well.

Marc Leavitt said...


It's all part of the same absurd reward system in this country.

Hugh Laurie was earning $750,000 for each episode of :House"; Jamie Dimon earns mega-millions, ditto sports stars.

How much does a teacher make? A fireman? A policeman? A garbage man? A soldier? A doctor? A nurse?

In the end, society as a whole is responsible for this skewed reward system and the misguided values which perpetuate it.

As Pogo said, "We have seen the enemy, and he is us."

By the way, nobody listens to commencement speeches or presidential inauguration speeches; if they someone claims he does... well, I have a nice bridge I'd like to sell.

Alan G said...

Having not really given this issue much thought I found myself in a position of being quite ignorant with regard to the subject matter unfortunately. But your commentary certainly got the blood of curiosity flowing.

Staying with your Rutgers example, my uneducated initial thoughts were, Well, what happens to all the revenue that these schools take in via their athletic programs. The only data I could secure answering the question I posed was unfortunately from 2008. Nevertheless, it reflects that Rutgers took in some 64 million in revenue that year from athletics and expended some 51 million of it to support their athletic activities including the coaching staff salaries. That left some 13 million on the table. On the surface therefore it would seem, warranted or not, that Rutgers should not even blink with so lowly a charge as $30,000 for a commencement address. I would assume, and perhaps wrongly so, that the excess would go to the school as a whole for distribution as they deemed appropriate.

Conversely of course, there is a lot of talk about the dire straits of our colleges and universities for sure. But that seems to be in complete conflict with all the talk about all the lucrative deals being made by these schools regarding their athletic ventures. It’s a bit confusing to say the least.

And from a student’s standpoint I think I would be saying to the school that the excess should be distributed in such a way as to decrease the cost of my education to more manageable levels which of course is the point of the student protest you have highlighted.

As to those who are solicited for these commencement addresses, it truly seems to me that in all good conscientiousness on behalf of the addressee, given the audience in particular, it should be an act of public service plain and simple – no fees required.

Dick Klade said...

Alan, you raise another of my pet peeves--the commercialization of college athletics. It's hard to gather concrete information in this area, because colleges are notoriously secretive about the details of their finances.

Most of what I think are reliable sources, including a friend who is an emeritus professor interested in the topic, say it is rare for any money raised by football and basketball teams to go anywhere except back into the athletic department. In fact, it's likely a majority of athletic programs need more money to operate than they take in with ticket and advertising sales.

As you say, what we learn from major media serves mostly to confuse the issue. We are seeing growing attention to the questions, so maybe there is hope for some better answers than we can come up with at the moment.

Kay said...

I agree with you! I didn't know they were paid so much. My daughter had Diane Sawyer when she graduated from University of Illinois and she was an excellent speaker, of course. My son had Senator Paul Simon who was phenomenal! That was the best speech I ever heard and I wrote Mr. Simon to tell him so. He actually wrote back to me. I was so touched. As for Ms. Rice, I hope she's not booed.

Kay said...

About the booing.... I would be tempted, but I'm too polite to do it.

Dick Klade said...

It would be disgusting and a poor reflection on Rutgers and its students if Miss Rice is booed. The highest purpose of universities, I think, is to endorse full and fair presentations of ideas from all quarters. Peaceful protests away from the gathering are OK, heckling or interfering with speakers is not.

Boo to those who would disrupt civil gatherings!

Tom Sightings said...

Just f.y.i., I share your other pet peeve, about the commercialization of college athletics. Maybe you can do a post on that once football season starts.

Dick Klade said...

Just learned that yesterday (May 3) Ms. Rice in a gracious statement declined the speech invitation. She said her appearance had become a distraction at what should be a joyous event. I am sorry to see this happen, but congratulate her on the way she handled it.

Kay said...

I just heard in the news yesterday about Ms. Rice and agree with you that she handled it beautifully and graciously.