Friday, June 03, 2016

Graduation Gifts to the Unworthy

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?

Regardless of the validity for doing it, paying stars to perform at college graduations has come under some heavy fire in recent years. Of course, private colleges and universities can do what they please. The questions involve public institutions, whose leaders constantly complain that they are receiving inadequate taxpayer funding. If they speak truth, why are taxpayer dollars being devoted to activities that are not directly related to educating students or performing important research?

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.


Kay said...

Wow! I had no idea they were getting such exorbitant speaking fees. I don't remember who spoke at my college graduation, but I remember our kids. My daughter's U of I class had Diane Sawyer who was very, very good. My son's U of I class had representative Paul Simon of Illinois who totally blew my socks off. I can still remember so much of what he said. I even wrote him a letter to tell him how impressed I was and he wrote back a lovely personal letter that I treasure.

Dick Klade said...

Kay: It's nice that you had those good experiences. Our son didn't participate in his college commencement, so we didn't have the opportunity to remember that one.

PiedType said...

I have no idea who spoke at either my high school or college (University of Oklahoma) graduation, nor what they said. I probably was just wishing they'd hurry up and finish. Yes, I would think the university president or some alum would be perfectly adequate as a speaker and should be honored enough to do it for free (maybe cover their expenses if they come from out of state). Russell Wilson, eh? What a remarkable young man. A great athlete, wonderful speaker, and inspiration to all.

Anonymous said...

Don't get me started on graduations and graduation speakers. After my first graduation when I received my BA, I never attended another of my own. And there were three more. Ther's a reason they play Pomp and Circumstance at these things...... After seven high school, and three college graduations for granddaughters I could not bring myself to attend my daughters three college graduation ceremonies, (I did attend David's MA ceremony). I told my son who has boys graduating in the next few years...I don't do graduations. Nor do I attend music and dance recitals or ball games. I'm done thank you.

The degree matters, the ceremony is BS.

Celia said...

Not high school but at my college graduation, University Of Washington 1964, the speaker was our Governor Albert Rosellini, an alum. I recall not one word that he said in no small part because I wasn't paying attention. At the time I thought he was there because he was running for governor again in the fall.

Kay said...

My son didn't want to participate in his commencement either, but he did it as a Mother's Day gift to me.

Anonymous said...

Our only child walked the graduation afternoon of December 16,2000 and her beloved Grandmother died the next morning..It put a big pall over the entire graduation she was in the top of her class and she got lots of accolades and gifts, we all cried and she did toooo, the commencement speaker for the December graduation was the alumni president she worked at the university western Washington in Bellingham for two years at the university..Sadly this fellow who gave a wonderful speech and short at that and gifts for the small group of people graduating died the next year..I remember what he said about ceasing the day each day and making people happy and laughing and hugging them, for one never knows if this will be the last day on this terrestrial and also he spoke of the star trek series and how it was ground breaking, he was a black man and wonderful person who taught psychology on the campus..His death was shocking one never ever knows! I say keep it short and don't pay anyone to speak to graduates, the kids who go to school surely need the money for scholarships to attend the universities and the colleges and junior colleges!

Anonymous said...

I meant so say Seizing the day, our only worked for him while he taught Psychology on the campus, what a fascinating, kind person and peaceful..Why pay people to speak at the graduations the graduates are burdened with many tuition and fees for years they don't want to hear some rock star, tv personality or celebrity rub it in their noses how much they will spend of their lives paying their student loans, no they don't! I say have someone like this professor and alumni president give the speech, make people feel wanted and loved and such a peaceful human being..Guess like he used to say about star trek to our only child just live and prosper and peace to all!

Janette said...

My speaker was Bob Hope. He came up the night before and gave a show. Unfortunately, he was drunk and filled with profanity. He, somehow, missed our graduation. That was 1979. Our class had raised the money to hire him. What a waste.

joared said...

I hadn't given much thought to the guest speaker pay situation, but what you say makes perfect sense. I don't recall who the speaker was at my high school or college graduation. I didn't attend my post-grad affair, but that's another story, so I don't know who spoke there.

Anonymous said...

I attended my high school graduation to please my mother (I believe the speaker was JC Nichols JR - but don't bet on it - I remember it was someone connected to JC Nichols, though); I attended my bachelor's degree graduation to please my husband (I don't even remember there being a speaker, but I'm pretty sure there was one); I skipped my master's degree graduation to please myself; and I eventually dropped out of the PhD program so was not required/allowed to attend.
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