By Collin Binkley at The Columbus Dispatch
Some colleges don’t hire graduation speakers. Others reserve the podium for alumni. But for those who want a top name, this season can be a battle.
Schools pay premium fees to attract names that students and families will recognize. A speech might last only 20 minutes, but for winners of the top acts, experts say, a high-profile name can be a token of pride for years.
“They go for the biggest celebrity they can afford,” said Mike Frank, owner of Speakers Unlimited, a booking bureau based in Columbus. “They do it for prestige, to say we had some big name as our speaker.”
Ohio State University announced last month that MSNBC host Chris Matthews will deliver the spring graduation speech. He sits among the upper echelon of speakers, Frank said. But some students pooh-poohed the pick. His politics ruffled some students, while others just wanted a bigger name.
Across Ohio, other schools have heard less grumbling about their selections.
Miami University landed actor and director Forest Whitaker. Students at Oberlin College will hear from Thomas Perez, the U.S. secretary of labor. Wittenberg University booked Donna de Varona, a gold-medal swimmer in the 1964 Olympics, and Kenyon College is bringing in travel writer Bill Bryson.
Most schools call bureaus with a price range in mind, not a person, Frank said. Top celebrities charge $10,000 or more, while lesser-known speakers start around $1,000. Past U.S. presidents are always popular, as are entertainers. But the speeches are usually a variation on the same theme, Frank said.
“It’s ‘You’ve had a good thing going up until now, and now you’ve got to go make things happen,’ ” Frank said.
With wide competition for a limited pool of speakers, the advantage often goes to the university leader with the right connections.
Former Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee personally invited President Barack Obama to speak last year after they met at a campaign stop. Obama’s advisers called the university months later to say he would be honored to speak.
At Miami, the president’s office contacted Whitaker through a mutual link: Graduate and faculty member Wil Haygood wrote the newspaper article that inspired The Butler, a movie that starred Whitaker last year.
“Conversations began soon after, and there was no need to seek other candidates,” said Claire Wagner, a Miami spokeswoman.
Otterbein University President Kathy Krendl invited Sen. Sherrod Brown and journalist Connie Schultz, his wife, to speak at graduation this year. It helped that Krendl had gotten to know Brown through education meetings in Washington, D.C., and had sought Schultz’s advice in the past on women’s initiatives.
Officials at Ohio State said that Matthews won’t be paid for his speech at Ohio Stadium, but they didn’t describe the details of the arrangement.
Other schools look for the biggest names among their alumni.
Students at Ohio University will hear from Charles Stuckey Jr., chairman emeritus of computer security giant RSA Security. He graduated from the school in 1966. The University of Cincinnati is bringing Tebelelo Mazile Seretse, who is Botswana’s ambassador to the United States and a 1980 graduate.
Some of the biggest winners this year include Stanford University, which landed Bill and Melinda Gates, and New York University in Abu Dhabi, with former President Bill Clinton. Obama will speak this spring at the University of California-Irvine.
But OSU isn’t the only school to face blowback for its selection.
At two schools that invited Condoleezza Rice to speak this year –– Rutgers University and the University of Minnesota — students and faculty members have lodged complaints, citing Rice’s involvement in the Iraq war. Actor James Franco withdrew from a California speech last year after students protested.
Outcries about graduation speakers seem to be more common in recent years, said Greg Lukianoff, whose Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is studying the topic. And more students are getting speakers booted.
“They unreasonably expect to have people who they agree with speaking at their campuses,” he said. “It makes it very difficult for universities to choose a speaker, particularly in cases where they’ve done anything controversial.”
But students at the University of Dayton signed a petition of a different sort last year: They just want a well-known speaker –– any well-known speaker. But that would break with a long-standing tradition, university officials said.
“The University of Dayton does not have an outside speaker,” said Cilla Shindell, a spokeswoman for the school. “Each student has an opportunity to shake the hand of President Daniel Curran and get a photo with him.”