Monday, Apr 23, 2018
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Price tag, value not equal when picking speaker

A few weeks ago, Lindsey Rudes found herself face to face with Antonin Scalia.

She's a first year law student at the University of Toledo; he's a U.S. Supreme Court justice. She's studying constitutional law; he makes it.

“That's about as big as you can get,” Ms. Rudes said.

Not if you look at the price tag for his appearance, however.

It took more than a year of persistent asking and an honorarium of $7,500 paid by the UT Foundation to get Justice Scalia to town to address students and the community.

But Russell Simmons, the hip-hop trailblazer and co-founder of Def Jam Records, fetched a price of $22,000 to speak at UT in February.

UT, Bowling Green State University, and many other universities have no central clearing house for information about the highest paycheck or total payments to guest speakers because different departments or student organizations can bring in their own speakers. The amounts sometimes depend on the demand for - and the generosity of - the speaker.

But there is one general rule of thumb.

“The bigger the name, the bigger the draw,” explained Jennifer Skeldon, UT's assistant director of student activities. “The students seem to draw to names that they're familiar with and intrigued with.”

Mr. Simmons' speech focusing on the power of persistence drew about 800 people to the UT student union. Justice Scalia's speech packed Doermann Theater with more than 600 people.

The money for Mr. Simmons came through general fees paid by students and was donated to charity, Ms. Skeldon said.

His presence produced a definite buzz on campus - a major plus when many students are weighed down by class lectures and apathetic about spending time on other speakers, according to Donovan Nichols, UT student government president.

“It's nice to have things on campus where students are excited,” he said. “You never know how much one speaker can turn around one person's life. Twenty thousand dollars for somebody to turn around their life, I believe is worth it.”

Bowling Green State University has had some big-name speakers too, though not always the hefty payouts.

Martha Burk, the chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, came to campus for $2,000 in February.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bill Dedman last month gave a speech and met with students in special sessions to teach them about computer-assisted reporting. An endowed lecture fund paid his $3,000 fee, and it was worth every penny, said Katherine Bradshaw, assistant professor in the department of journalism.

“Just having him on campus is inspiring,” she said.

The faculty at colleges and universities are valuable, she continued, but often the same messages hit home more effectively with students when they come from someone they recognize in the outside world.

Officials at UT's law school said they have increased efforts to bring in high-profile speakers, despite diminished resources in recent years. Just last week, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno wore her trademark pearls to a speech on domestic violence, for which she was paid $12,500.

“We made conscious efforts to improve the quality of our speaker series because we thought that was an important way to improve the quality of the whole law school,” said the school's dean, Phillip Closius.

One of the first things the law school did several years ago was to make it policy to find alumni to speak without charge at commencement, freeing up valuable dollars.

Sometimes they are assisted by alumni or faculty with connections; other times, they work through an agent or make cold calls.

When journalist Steven Emerson visited the law school in November, his $6,000 fee was paid for by the Stranahan National Issues Forum, a group that brings conservative speakers to campus.

Some speakers, such as AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who visited in September, ask only that their host pay for their expenses. Others, like Dan Troy, chief counsel for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, don't even ask for travel costs.

“We have found that most of the time speakers are really eager to come and talk at universities,” said Howard Friedman, a law professor who coordinates the speaker series at UT's law school.

The goal is to give a platform to speakers and a learning opportunity to students.

“Students see in real life the people who are making the laws and policies that they read about in class and that they have to deal with,” Mr. Friedman said.

Students who attended Justice Scalia's speech “were ecstatic that someone of his stature would come and speak so openly to us,” Ms. Rudes said.

Mr. Nichols said UT and other universities must monitor speaker programs to ensure that they're serving the students and the community at large.

“Especially when coming into this budget-crunching time, it's important to make sure we're always evaluating our programs to make sure that it's the most cost-effective thing for the university and the students,” he said.

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