It's graduation time once more accompanied by a spate of news stories on various aspects of the educational rituals. A few focus on the costs of speakers. The Associated Press did that on May 25, just as the commencement ceremony season was getting under way.
We did a brief survey within our small family. Not a single person could remember who was the featured speaker at their high school or college graduation ceremonies. To be definitive, a broader survey surely would be needed, but our little sampling seems to question the truth of statements by college leaders that paying for celebrity speakers serves to impress alumni who make donations and causes potential students to take an interest in their campus.
A representative of Kean, a small public university in New Jersey that paid two speakers $80,000, claimed it was a reward for the graduates: "It makes their commencement just that much more memorable." Well, not if the grads don't even remember who the speaker was, much less what was said.
Do you remember who spoke and what they said at a graduation ceremony honoring your class?
The good news is that the practice seems to be declining, according to AP data from 20 public universities that were asked about paying notable speakers to perform, including providing travel expenses. As part of the study, a large speaker booking agency was questioned. A representative said the firm was getting fewer requests for paid graduation speakers. Growing criticism of the practice was thought to be the cause. Of the 20 universities responding to AP's request, 16 said they aren't paying speaking fees this year.
The bad news is some universities have joined the payola group in recent years, and some fees are a bit startling. Rutgers made its first payment in 2011, rewarding author Toni Morrison with $30,000 for her talk. The University of Houston paid astronaut Scott Kelly $35,000. The University of Oklahoma paid television personality Katie Couric a whopping $110,000 back in 2006.
Last year, my school, the University of Wisconsin, paid Ms. Couric $3,100 for first-class flights from New York to Madison to speak at commencement. I don't object to paying travel costs, but couldn't she have flown coach or business class? And why not travel on her own dime? Wikipedia says Katie Couric is worth about 75 million dollars.
The Couric engagement brings up another concern. She certainly is a successful person, and therefore qualified to deliver in inspirational message. But she is a graduate of the University of Virginia, not Wisconsin. Every issue of the Wisconsin alumni magazine carries stories about highly successful graduates in many fields. One would think the school could sign up any number of graduation speakers without any cost simply by offering an honorary degree, or perhaps even without the degree offer. Most grads would consider it a high honor. Wouldn't you?
There was no problem this year finding a Wisconsin grad who is both famous and successful. Russell Wilson did the honors. He graduated six years ago with a liberal arts degree after quarterbacking the Wisconsin football team for two outstanding seasons. He has gone on to a successful professional career with the Seattle Seahawks.
Some, of course, would question the selection of an athlete when successful graduates in more important venues were available. However, I listened to Wilson's speech and it was terrific. He did a marvelous job of relating how he overcame serious obstacles to succeed at what he chose to do, and linked those experiences to some good advice to the grads. The selection committee must have strongly considered the message and the speaker's ability to deliver it.
Perhaps members of the UW Class of 2016 won't long remember who spoke or what he said, but if some do, the memory will be of a message from a fellow Badger. And the taxpayers didn't have to pick up a hefty tab to make it happen.