Saturday, May 21, 2016

Capping Speakers' Honoraria

I write toward the end of the season of commencements and at a time when Hillary (and Bill) Clinton's income for speeches remains a political issue. So I'm going to recycle an old story and some proposals for capping payments to speakers at colleges and universities.

The story goes like this. 

A couple or three or more decades back, anyway, back when ten thousand dollars was a lot of money, the people who ran the major lecture series for Miami University came to Miami's Student Affairs Council with a request to shift money around so they could bring in Henry Kissinger for ten grand. We had an interesting debate, with a student member of Council of the new-style conservative persuasion insisting that we should put up $10K for so famous and noncontroversial a speaker as Mr. Kissinger, and a faculty representative of old-style conservative persuasion informing the students that Henry Kissinger could legitimately be called many things, but "noncontroversial" wasn't among them. Beneath the surface of the debate might've been a liberal-pinko-peacenik desire to silence Kissinger, but it wouldn't have been much: anything that got debate going at Miami U was good for the Left, and a Kissinger visit would be a fine opportunity to have a high-profile demonstration.

Nah, opposition came from faculty, and what was at stake was the money. Not too long before, as a "Merit Instructor" at the University of Illinois (Urbana), I made six thousand dollars for a year of full-time teaching; and Kissinger was demanding — and in many places getting — ten thousand for one night's work delivering a canned speech, probably the same canned speech he'd give a couple days later in Cincinnati or Dayton, or both.

I forget whether or not Kissinger gave the speech (I think he went only to Cincy), but I do remember submitting guidelines for remuneration of speakers at Miami U, which I felt would be applicable for colleges and universities generally. I immodestly list them below.

      (1) Null case: Graduations are for the graduates and their families, and they habitually run way too long. Unless you can get something like Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech, commencement addresses should be limited to a few words by the class valedictorian or other representative, as was done at Cornell prior to 1968. 
      (2) No speaker should be paid for a campus visit more than the lowest compensated full-time university employee receives in take-home pay for a year's work. 
     (3) Any speaker paid the same as or more than half of what the lowest compensated full-time university employee receives in take-home pay for a year's work is writing for hire. 
                  • The speech is to be a speech, of appropriate length but at least twenty minutes, with written copy to be submitted prior to delivery.
                         No "rapping with the group," the way Nat Hentoff did for the speech I hired him for.
                         No ad lib journey down memory lane, as ex-Senator Sam Ervin did at Miami.
                 • The speech is to be a relatively original work, not canned, and not delivered elsewhere one week prior through one week after delivery at (in this case) Miami University.
                 • The speech becomes the property of the university (etc.) for one year, with the university's agreeing to its being delivered elsewhere, outside of the two-week moratorium mentioned above, for payment of one dollar (US$1.00) to the university for each repetition.
       (4) Speakers receiving substantial remuneration should be required to mix a bit with the campus community for a day or so, interviewing with the local media, talking to a class, eating with some of the peasants — and so forth: not a "bim-bam-thank you man, or ma'am," quickie. 

If this means the college or university can't bring in A-List speakers, that may be just as well. My experience was that speakers lower down the food-chain took their gigs more seriously and delivered better speeches. Indeed, the best address given in a lecture series I ran was by a guy who wasn't paid much and who'd forgotten that he'd be paid at all. Moreover, a university with a decent faculty and robust relations with nearby schools should be able to bring in local experts cheaply and frequently.

The one apparent exception during my Miami years was a highly impressive address by Mikhail Sergeyevich GorbachevGeneral Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991, sponsored by, of all groups, Miami's business school. The exception was only apparent, however, since the direct cost of the speech to Miami University was zip (zero dollars, nada); the b-school organizers of the event raised the money from private sources. I'm sure Mr. Gorbachev made a lot of capitalist money for his work, but whoever paid got value for that money: the speech was both scholarly and from a literally unique and privileged perspective. 

Okay, and there was Art Buchwald's commencement address, which started out reminding graduates that we, the older generation, had left them a perfect world and they damn well shouldn't screw it up. But Buchwald I would've paid to hear in an entertainment series, and I'll stick with the principle that at graduation we should hear a graduate speak (briefly, for God's sake briefly!).

Colleges and universities paying for big-name speakers are engaging in competitive Public Relations, and that's fine so long as really famous and already-wealthy speakers join the game and speak for free: not donating their fees back to the school but free. Big spenders bringing in big-time politicians are purchasing access and good will: low-key bribery; that needs regulation rather more complicated than what I recommended for Miami U, best dang school in the Miami Valley, but not a major player in US politics.

1 comment:

  1. Our commencement speaker at Ohio Wesleyan was some capitalist-colonialist exploiter who ran a rubber plantation in Africa. I think his last name was Firestone. Honestly ! He spent time going after hippies and their "High Priestess, Joan Baez".....Happy to say he got rumblings and boos.