MA Colleges Spend Tens of Thousands in Taxpayer Money on Celebrity Commencement Speakers

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Graduation season is in full swing, and as a hotbed of higher education, Greater Boston sees hundreds of thousands of students matriculate each spring. These festivities bring visiting parents, landscaped campuses, and, of course, commencement speakers.

Celebrity speakers have long been a high-point at commencement ceremonies. Each year, politicians, academics, actors, musicians and CEOs get tapped to address graduating classes. In addition to the publicity they gain from such appearances, speakers often enjoy honorary degrees conferred upon them and the opportunity to impart wisdom on the newest generation of workers. The speaking fees these school pay are also increasing rapidly.

In the last decade, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has spent close to $700,000 in honoraria for visiting speakers and lecturers at state colleges and universities. In 2015 alone, it spent $225,650. While these speakers often provide highly enjoyable spectacles, the fees raise a basic question: Is a taxpayer-funded college justified in spending several thousand dollars for a 15-minute speech when they’re sometimes struggling even to cover basic academic expenses?

In June 2015, the Boston Globe revealed the institutions with particular penchants for paying exorbitant fees to their guest speakers. University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Massachusetts Lowell, and Westfield State University have all used public funds to attract actors, celebrity artists, and other public figures for commencement appearances. Both UMass Amherst and UMass Dartmouth hired celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to speak at their respective ceremonies at price tags ranging from $30,000 to $35,000.

Westfield State is notorious for such purchases, using annual budget funds to pay “Humans of New York” photographer Brandon Stanton $30,000, plus travel. Former Westfield State president Evan Dobelle, aside from hiding numerous personal expenditures in the school’s budget, had spent up to $500,000 of public money on a “two-part celebrity speaker series.”

Bunker Hill Community College is another institution big on allocating precious taxpayer funds to commencement speeches. Local CBS news personality Jon Keller took the school to task in 2012 over paying filmmaker Michael Moore a shocking $40,000 for 2011 speaker appearances (in addition to covering his travel and lodging expenses). Moore then donated “a quarter” of his payment back to the school, but eyebrows had already been raised; Bunker Hill is a predominantly low-income commuter school, with many students working part or full time and earning their degrees through night classes. After investigation, Keller discovered that Moore’s fee was more than double the salary of a typical Bunker Hill adjunct professor. To make matters worse, he learned that there was barely money in that year’s budget for arts students’ supplies, with some professors having to purchase theirs out of pocket.

These skewed spending priorities are part of a bigger pattern in our public higher education system: Schools display a propensity for frivolous purchases, seemingly with little regard to the taxpayer.

This is in contrast to other Bay State schools, which make a point of using alternative funding sources to hire celebrity speakers. In 2015, Salem State paid Patriots quarterback Tom Brady roughly $170,000 in appearance fees. These funds, the school insisted, were drawn from the nonprofit Salem State University Foundation, as well as money raised from ticket sales and sponsorships.

While there is certainly nothing wrong with colleges wanting to give their graduates a fun, fulfilling commencement experience, speaking fees cannot come at the cost of more important budgetary priorities? It’s fine for schools to finance speaker appearances via private fundraising. But while Massachusetts taxpayers can be expected to contribute to a thriving education system, they should not be made to foot the bill for celebrity speeches.