Grad speakers like Donald Trump, Valerie Jarrett and Matthew McConaughey may have their fees capped.
Updated: April 11, 2017
Talking could be getting even cheaper.
Valerie Jarrett, a close confidant of former President Barack Obama, said today that she would be delivering a commencement speech at Northeastern Illinois University for free after a barrage of fierce criticism. The Chicago Sun-Times had reported that Jarrett was set to be paid $30,000 by the university in Chicago, which faces budget challenges.
This follows a late March vote by the New Jersey state legislature that limits the amount of state funds used to pay speakers at universities to $10,000. The bill is cosponsored by Republican lawmaker John DiMaio who reportedly said he found it “ludicrous and wasteful” that the state was spending taxpayer dollars on speakers like “Jersey Shore” star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi. The reality TV star received $32,000 when she spoke at Rutgers in 2011.
The bill is awaiting the signature of Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican. A Christie spokesperson didn’t seem aware the bill had cleared the state legislature. When told by Moneyish it was waiting for action from Christie, his rep said he had no time to look up the bill and that the Governor’s office had no comment on something it hadn’t had “ample time to review.” Christie had previously said he would consider the bill but not expend any time or political capital talking about it.
State lawmakers say the bill is necessary “in light of the reduction in State funding to public institutions of higher education and increase in tuition and fees at these institutions in recent years.” Indeed, the price of bringing public figures to campus for commencement speeches has been skyrocketing in the past decade. For instance, the actor Matthew McConaughey reportedly received compensation in excess of $135,000 to appear at the University of Houston’s 2015 commencement; money he donated to charity. Yahoo global news anchor Katie Couric is said to have been paid $110,000 to deliver the keynote at the University of Oklahoma’s commencement in 2006.
Sometimes the fee is so high that colleges back out. According to the Washington Post, the University of Missouri at Kansas City had intended to book Hillary Clinton for a gala luncheon. But her $275,000 quote scared them off and they hired the Secretary of State’s daughter, Chelsea Clinton, for less than a quarter of Hillary’s fee.
Sitting presidents, vice presidents and first ladies are often in-demand as commencement speakers. For instance, Barack Obama spoke at over 20 graduation events during his eight years in the White House and Donald Trump will give the keynote address at Liberty University’s commencement this May. The university in Lynchburg, VA didn’t return a request for comment on what financial arrangements, if any, were made for Trump.
Presidents typically waive their speaking fees—even before he was elected, Trump reportedly spoke pro bono at Liberty University in 2012—but colleges are still on the hook for associated costs. Rutgers spent more than $1.43 million on a 2016 commencement that President Obama spoke at, including over $160,000 on public safety costs and $103,000 on road traffic planning.
This story was updated on April 11, 2017 with news of Valerie Jarrett’s commencement speech in Chicago and to include reaction from the office of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on the bill inspired by Snooki.
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