Containing the costs of commencement speakers

Getting a prominent, yet free, speaker is more time-consuming than simply hiring one, but it can be the only option

Commencement speakers have become another point of financial scrutiny in higher ed, with an annual flurry of students crying foul on both the person selected and fees incurred. Some colleges avoid charges by tapping their own faculty for the task (as University of Chicago has done since 1970). Others pursue prominent speakers willing to donate their services.

The University of Texas at Austin finds success in the latter. Student groups—including the student government, the senate of college councils and the graduate student assembly—solicit suggestions from their peers, and then work with the president’s chief of staff to identify the most appropriate and exciting speakers, says J.B. Bird, director of media outreach. The president usually extends the invitation to the potential speaker directly, unless a student representative has an established connection with the candidate. Because the speakers are working for free, a strong tie to the state itself is typically a prerequisite.

Getting a prominent, yet free, speaker is more time-consuming than simply hiring one, but it can be the only option. “As a state institution, the way we spend money is under constant scrutiny,” says Bird. “But our process yields results. We have found a way to discover the alchemy that connects speakers with students.”

The 2014 commencement speech given at UT Austin by alumnus and Naval Admiral William H. McRaven, then the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, went viral, garnering three million hits on YouTube. The speech was picked up by major news outlets (including The Wall Street Journal), and eventually integrated into an inspirational video created by UCLA athletics. McRaven was named chancellor of the UT system in July 2014 and took his post this January.

Not all schools ask speakers to donate their services, of course, and some spend big to bring in household names. The University of Houston hired actor Matthew McConaughey to speak at its spring 2015 commencement for $135,000. The move has bolstered both media attention and prestige surrounding the university, says Richard Bonnin, executive director of media relations and digital programming. The university is covering the fees with revenue generated by its continuing education program, he says, adding that McConaughey will donate the money to his Just Keep Livin Foundation, which offers fitness and wellness programs to high school students.

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