Sept. 16 2015 01:48 PM

MSU out of step on paying commencement speakers

In the current age of inequality there is a lot of talk about a minimum wage and even, occasionally, a living wage, even as we read or hear about extravagant salaries for CEO’s or celebrities. One of the more lucrative opportunities for celebrities is speeches. MSU recently came under fire for paying columnist George Will $40,000 for a 10-minute speech at the December 2014 commencement ceremony. Rumors of large past payments to celebrity speakers had me curious, wondering whether this was a fluke or a trend.

So I initiated Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) queries to our three state universities with publicly elected trustees — Wayne State University, University of Michigan and Michigan State University — requesting payment information to commencement speakers, to any agencies representing those speakers, or to any organizations on behalf of the speakers (some use their fees to support the organizations they are affiliated with or represent). The responses were enlightening.

Michigan State offered the most comprehensive details, listing every speaker and any fee involved as well as lodging, travel and meal costs.

Wayne State University was quickest to respond. It only paid one commencement speaker between 1995-2015: $12,250 in 2012 to the Washington Speakers’ Bureau for Dr. Jerry Linenger, a former astronaut, plus $390.26 for mileage and meals and $265.24 for two nights of lodging.

The University of Michigan responded that it ”does not pay honoraria to commencement speakers, nor does it make payments to speaker agencies, institutions or organizations associated with the speakers.” If I wanted records on travel expenses including lodging and meals I could write a separate request.

So as it turns out, MSU’s increasing use of payments to commencement speakers, at least among its state peers, is perplexing. The trend is pretty clear. Between 1995 and 2004, MSU paid out $70,000 in speakers fees. Among those receiving fees were Stephen Jay Gould, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Elie Wiesel.

But in the last decade MSU has awarded more than $400,000 in speakers’ fees, on top of the honorary degrees conferred.

The biggest check went to Steve Wozniak, designer of the first Apple computer, at $83,365. Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, received $50,000, as did Joseph Kennedy II. Maya Angelou and Gro Harlem Brundtland, former president of Norway, each pocketed $35,000, while a few others netted between $9,250 and $30,000. To be fair, most of MSU’s commencement speakers receive no payment and some even cover their own expenses to get here. This was true for Sergio Marchionne, Rick Snyder, Tom Vilsak, Mitch Albom, Earvin Johnson, Carl Levin, Condoleeza Rice, Dick Cheney, Debbie Stabenow,and some others.

Travel and lodging vary greatly. Interestingly, Berry Gordy had an $8,600 lodging bill and Michael Moore, who gave a commencement address the same day as George Will, had a $1,612 lodging bill, although he didn’t receive a speaker’s fee.

While one may get mesmerized by seeing who got what, the more important issue for me is the trend that has emerged. Being invited to give a commencement address is an honor — at any level of graduation. The addition of an honorary degree from that institution should be icing on a delicious cake. So why do public universities that are crying for more public support expect the public to support this kind of expenditure?

While I was initiating MSU sustainability efforts years ago, we would often invite outside speakers with some special knowledge or expertise to share their insights with the community. I recall a year early on when, putting together a speaker series, I asked one invitee how much she needed to be paid to accept our invitation. She replied, “It doesn’t matter as long as I am paid the same as any male speaker.” That conversation opened my eyes to the nature of the public speaker industry. I eventually determined not to pay anyone above $1,500 for a visit and public address, using the rationale that even if they only did one of these talks a week and it was their sole income, they’d be making more than the median household income of roughly $50,000 a year. A pretty good gig if you can do it.

As alluded to earlier, many popular speakers charge large fees to raise funds for the nonprofit organizations they run, not for themselves. Others find raising their fees keeps the requests down to a more manageable number. Once they hook up with a speakers’ agency the price skyrockets.

UM and WSU seem to have this about right. MSU should rethink how high an honor it is to address our graduates and not pander to the insane marketplace of public speaking.

(Terry Link, who founded MSU’s Office of Sustainability, is a consultant on sustainability.)