Colleges Compete for Commencement Speakers

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Finding a commencement speaker can be a big worry for a college president. With only some A-listers available, schools use the prestige of their institutions, connections and cash to lure speakers to their campuses.


Before college seniors graduate, they'll have to sit through one last lecture--the commencement address. If they can snag them, schools want A-list speakers, in particular for what they may say to students and for the cachet they could bring to the institution. NPR's Ben Bergman reports.

BEN BERGMAN reporting:

Some colleges can entice speakers with the prestige of their institution and the offer of an honorary degree. Others pay cold, hard cash. But sometimes it all boils down to who you know.

Mr. NIDO QUBEIN (President, High Point University): My Rolodex, I must tell you, is pretty pregnant with good connections, and I worked those connections.

BERGMAN: That's Nido Qubein. He's president of High Point University in North Carolina. The school has just 3,000 students and hasn't attracted a big-name commencement speaker in 18 years. But tomorrow, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani will break that streak. President Qubein is in his first year at High Point, and he says landing a big-name graduation speaker was a top priority. Qubein wanted someone who would deliver a thoughtful speech to graduates. But he also wanted a speaker who would enhance the school's image.

Mr. QUBEIN: It is a marvelous opportunity to brand our school--to bring it notice. And sometimes you're measured by the company that you keep, and who you spend your time with is who you become. So when you merge all of that together, the magic is in the mix.

BERGMAN: Qubein estimates that bringing Giuliani to campus could cost as much as $75,000, but he thinks it's money well-spent. He plans to make full use of Giuliani's visit to spur donations to the school. The former mayor will be featured at a reception tonight for what Qubein calls VIF.

Mr. QUBEIN: Very Important Friends. And we'll have 120, 130 people. Many of them have made serious commitments to this university, and many of them are capable of making even greater commitments in the future.

BERGMAN: As much as High Point is spending, it's not a bad deal--according to Richard Barcham, an agent who helps institutions find commencement speakers. He says many speakers like Giuliani substantially discount their fees when speaking to colleges and other non-profit groups. Barcham says those fees can range from $2,500 all the way to $125,000 for a top speaker like Oprah or Tom Brokaw. But as far as big names go, Barcham says schools usually get what they pay for.

Mr. RICHARD BARCHAM (Agent Who Connects Institutions With Commencement Speakers): Really, the celebrity fees start at about $20,000, and those are, I suppose, to put it bluntly, B- and C-list celebrities. And then the more dollars you spend the more name you get.

BERGMAN: Six weeks ago, the University of Miami called Barcham, willing to spend to get a big name. They wanted filmmaker Spike Lee, who Barcham says charges between $25,000 and $40,000. Barcham closed the deal in less than 24 years, and Lee spoke at the university's commencement last weekend. Barcham says it's easier to make a deal with schools that pay speakers, but most schools, he says, have a policy of not paying. One of those schools is the University of Pennsylvania, where UN Secretary General Kofi Annan will give the commencement address and receive an honorary degree.

Ms. LESLIE KRUHLY (University of Pennsylvania): We are conferring an honor, and we hope that people will see it in that light.

BERGMAN: Leslie Kruhly oversees commencement at Penn.

Ms. KRUHLY: It is an extraordinary distinction to receive an honorary degree, and money's not part of the arrangement.

BERGMAN: But with money off the table, connections become more important, says Payal Patel. She's the senior class president at Johns Hopkins University, which also doesn't pay commencement speakers. Her class is bringing Al Gore to commencement. Patel says it would have been harder to get him to pay attention to her request if not for the help of a trustee's wife who used to work for Gore.

Ms. PAYAL PATEL (Senior Class President, Johns Hopkins University): I think the connection is really key. When it comes just from a student or just from, like, a university without any kind of, like, personal connection, I think it just gets sent to the front office and it kind of just sits there and it gets thrown in the trash.

BERGMAN: Patel sits on the lacrosse field where Gore will deliver his speech at the end of the month.

Ms. PATEL: We all know who Al Gore is. It's better than like just blah. Just feel like--have grown up with someone like that and then have them speak as you're, like, entering the real world--I think that's really important.

BERGMAN: Payal Patel says it doesn't matter what Gore talks about as long as he's there. But college presidents insist that what a speaker says is important, and they want someone who can send graduates off on a high note. Mary Brown Bullock is president of Agnes Scott College in Georgia, where Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton will speak for free next weekend.

Ms. MARY BROWN BULLOCK (President of Agnes Scott College): What I'm looking for is someone that will have a message for our students--that they will inspire them on that day and hopefully in the years to come.

BERGMAN: But whether students will remember what a speaker said--or even who spoke in the years to come--is another question. Bullock graduated from Agnes Scott in 1966, and admits she has no idea who delivered her commencement address. But, she says, if someone like Senator Clinton had spoken at her graduation, that she would surely remember. Ben Bergman, NPR News.

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