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Celebrity speakers highly sought for college commencements

Sunday, June 02, 2002

By Bill Schackner, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

George Will visited his family's past a few weeks back, delivering the commencement speech at Thiel College, where his parents met as students more than 70 years ago.

If it was a big moment for Will, a nationally known political commentator, it was an even bigger moment for the Greenville liberal arts college. After all, what's said on the graduation dais can be less important than who shows up to say it. Thiel leaders had dreamed for years that Will's family ties would one day help them score a commencement speaker coup.

The 1,300-student campus in Mercer County isn't alone in chasing the stars. A growing number of colleges, including those that have just put away their caps and gowns for the year, already are in hot pursuit of big-name talent for next year or the year after.

Call it the never-ending quest for collegiate validation, or a sign that even academics are impressed by celebrity.

To understand what the commencement speaker game has become, ask the campuses that drew huge names this spring thanks to money, connections or just plain luck.

For a small school like Thiel to land a big name like Will, it meant jumping through some modest hoops.

It proposed a $1,500 honorarium and offered Will first-class air travel to Pittsburgh. It hired a professional limousine service because he planned to work on the ride from the airport and "didn't want to be trapped in the car with somebody [whom] he didn't necessarily want to talk to," Thiel President Lance Masters said.

The college didn't stop there: It scouted out Visaggio's Ristorante, a suburban Harrisburg establishment fancied by Will, and arranged for the owners to travel 250 miles to prepare a special campus lunch for the VIP and other invited guests.

For all the effort, Thiel says it got off cheaply during Will's several-hour stay. Some colleges pay $10,000 or more for the kind of star power that can impress prospective students or make a wealthy alum feel good enough about his alma mater to make a donation.

Standing out in a crowd

Masters said the right speaker represented something precious in the crowded world of higher education.

"There are 3,700 colleges and universities in the United States today. Frankly, you can get a good education at almost any one of them. How does a college differentiate itself?" he asked. "George Will might turn down an offer to come and speak at a lot of colleges. He didn't turn down our invitation.

"It's the brand name phenomenon," Masters said. "This is part of world-class edu-tainment."

Famous speakers are not a revolutionary concept, but they've been associated more often in the past with big-name schools.

Now, though, even less well known colleges are increasingly asking why they should settle for the campus president, or a successful trustee, when they can get words of wisdom from Oprah Winfrey or Danny Glover or Jon Bon Jovi.

That's why schools are starting the selection process earlier and earlier, and are still encountering more competition than ever for "A list" speakers, who can command $25,000 a lecture, but often give schools a cut rate.

Special campus committees create wish lists a year or more in advance after polling faculty, trustees and students.

They whittle their choices, make their approach and then sweat out the wait.

Sometimes, negotiations take months and collapse over money.

Other times, schools are pleasantly surprised.

That was true when the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown persuaded Bill Cosby to speak at this year's commencement, marking the school's 75th anniversary. Not only did he waive a speaking fee, but Cosby also handled his own transportation, flying in by personal jet.

To accommodate his schedule, the school moved its May 4 commencement ahead two hours, campus President Albert Etheridge said. It also awarded Cosby an honorary degree.

Try to imagine what it felt like for the school's 500 graduates, said Etheridge, who approached Cosby's agent in July with a pitch that included how much the appearance would mean to the Johnstown region. During the ceremony, the comic drew cheers inside the school's Sports Center when he removed a traditional academic gown to reveal sneakers, jogging pants and a "UPJ" sweat shirt.

'He hugged back'

Graduate after graduate stepped across the platform and got to shake hands and pose for photos next to an internationally known celebrity.

"Hundreds of them hugged him," Etheridge said. "And he hugged them back."

The most coveted commencement speaker in the nation each year, of course, is the president of the United States. After that, it branches off, from the likes of Bill Gates to actors, screenwriters and other high achievers.

People with ties to Sept. 11 also are in demand this year.

Though some schools adamantly oppose shelling out money for commencement speakers, the practice has taken off over the last decade, said Don Epstein, president of the Greater Talent Network Inc., a New York City agency that lines up celebrity speakers.

And it's produced some angst, even at schools that have grudgingly made the decision to pay. After all, $10,000 or even $5,000 is a semester's worth of tuition at some schools and would make a sizable scholarship.

"Could that money be more wisely spent educating a student in the first place?" asked Randy Ringen, director of public relations at Harvey Mudd College.

Besides, a sought-after celebrity offers no guarantee the speech itself won't be a yawner.

Part of the education

It's a legitimate part of a student's education to hear what a world leader has to say, said Norman Arkans, associate vice president for university relations at the University of Washington where former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is scheduled to speak.

"We try to put together a meaningful, celebratory event," he said. "I skipped my commencement back in the 1970s. It was a different time. People were less interested in formal ceremonies then."

Playing in the big leagues of commencement speakers can mean rejection.

Juniata College got turned down by retired baseball great Cal Ripken Jr. this year. But it has snagged other notables in recent years, including Bruce Davis, executive director of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of Juniata's class of 1965; and Johan Nordenfelt, Swedish ambassador and United Nations official.

"We do not pay commencement speakers. The honorary doctor of humane letters degree is the pay, so to speak," said John Wall, a spokesman for the 1,300-student campus.

Some are happy to work for that fee.

At Harvey Mudd, Space Shuttle astronaut and Mudd graduate George Nelson (class of 1972) agreed to speak for free May 19.

"He stayed with a professor while he was here. We pretty much just had to pay the price for an airline ticket," Ringen said. "We didn't even have to rent a car because I picked him up at the airport. I thanked him. He said, 'Well, I'm honored to be doing this.' "

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