Two N.J. universities pay big commencement fees

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Journalist Bill Moyers to address Rutgers-New Brunswick graduates. Rutgers is paying Moyers $35,000.

Two New Jersey universities pay their commencement speakers sums much higher than their peers across the region, according to an Inquirer survey.

Rutgers University is paying $35,000 to veteran journalist Bill Moyers for speaking at its New Brunswick commencement ceremony May 15. (President Obama, who will be the featured speaker, did not accept the invitation until after Moyers had been announced. He will not be paid.)

Kean University's undergraduate and graduate commencement speakers will both be paid $40,000.

The practice of paying commencement speakers has been controversial at times, as when the University of Houston last year paid actor Matthew McConaughey $135,000, with critics asking whether the money could be better used elsewhere.

Rutgers said the money is needed to attract high-profile speakers; Kean said its speakers give "unforgettable commencement addresses."

"Kean University works with its student organization groups at the undergraduate and graduate levels to identify speakers that the students themselves would like to have at commencement to make the ceremonies memorable and special," a spokeswoman said in a statement.

Kean and its undergraduate student organization evenly split the $40,000 fee for the undergraduate speaker, "Humans of New York" creator Brandon Stanton. The university and its graduate organization evenly split the $40,000 paid to Capt. Mark Kelly, the astronaut, who will speak at the graduate commencement ceremony.

Previous speakers include Maya Angelou, John Legend, Anderson Cooper, Samantha Bee, Wes Moore, and Anna Quindlen.

Rutgers said its honoraria are funded by private concession fees that Pepsi pays for its exclusive campus contract.

"Rutgers University, like scores of other institutions around the country, offers an honorarium in order to attract esteemed, high-caliber speakers - most of whom charge a fee," the university said in a statement.

The practice raised eyebrows when Rutgers began paying the speaker fees in 2011, giving author Toni Morrison $30,000.

Since then, Rutgers has offered its speakers a $35,000 honorarium. William Sanford Nye - Bill Nye the Science Guy - accepted the money last year, and Moyers, a former White House press secretary, is accepting the money this year.

Three other speakers have turned down the honorarium, including retired N.J. Supreme Court Justice Virginia Long in 2013.

Motorola Solutions CEO Greg Brown, who spoke in 2012, and former Gov. Tom Kean, who spoke in 2014, declined the money and asked the university to turn it into scholarship funding.

Most schools responding to an Inquirer survey said they do not offer money to speakers. Some, including Rowan University, said they cover travel and housing costs if needed.

Temple University, which covers travel costs, does not offer honoraria because the practice is inconsistent with the school's mission of keeping student costs down, said Betsy Leebron Tutelman, senior vice provost for strategic communications.

"Our president has an initiative to reduce student debt," she said. "If we were to pay $50,000 to an honorary degree recipient, that would be $50,000 that we might spend out of an endowment fund, which instead could go to student scholarships."

She said: "That money is better spent on students."

- Jonathan Lai
and Susan Snyder