Celeb Graduation Speakers: Great Idea or a Waste of Money?

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Happy Cinco De Mayo! Did you know that Cinco De Mayo isn’t – as is popularly believed – Mexican Independence Day? Today actually commemorates Mexico’s defeat of the French Army in 1862. So there’s a teensy bit of history for you and now I’ll stop.

So I’d like to address a phenomenon that’s sweeping the nation’s colleges and universities. And that’s the use of celebrity commencement speakers. Was someone famous addressing your graduating class when you tossed your cap in the air and wished that gown wasn’t so itchy and warm? At my college the address was more often than not given by our school’s president. I guess in this era of dwindling attendance to even the most cherished of ceremonies, it’s now becoming essential to have a big shot up there. According to a CNN feature, Bill Cosby has done more than 30 commencement addresses; former president Bill Clinton is also an extremely popular choice these days – as is his wife. Did you know it’s also a very lucrative business? Reportedly Katie Couric gets around $110,000 to wish students farewell; meanwhile people like Clinton and Rudy Giuliani can routinely bring in around $75,000 a pop to send seniors off. Lots of celebrities are also pretty affluent themselves – and major philanthropists – so some, like Cosby, often waive their fees on behalf of the school. According to the Huffington Post, people in the market for guest speakers can snag lots of ‘mid-range’ types for less money: for example, you can land Ben Stein, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Carmen Electra or Doug Flutie for anywhere from $30K-$50K. $100,000 gets you the likes of Adam Sandler, Arnold Palmer and Bill Murray, just to name a few. Or, if you’re willing to take it up to $200,000 you can lock in people like Ellen, Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen or Tony Blair.  And then parents will really sit up and take notice.

Plus, the idea of commencement is now usually a full weekend with more than one speaker. Many colleges have Class Day – with a speech that’s humorous and lighthearted. Chelsea Handler will be delivering this year’s Class Day address at Emory University. At Yale, Tom Hanks will be doing the honors. Princeton alumna Brooke Shields will speak to her school’s class of 2011, while Harvard graduates will welcome SNL’s Amy Poehler.

Of course the biggest cheese of all is the President of the United States, and Barack Obama will indeed be delivering the commencement address at one private university, one public university, and one military academy (as is Presidential custom.)

To be fair, there’s also a backlash going on at colleges too, because not everyone wants a big name at their commencement. What do you think? Would you be more excited about attending your sibling’s or your kid’s graduation ceremony if there was a bona-fide star up there like Oprah or Robin Williams at the podium? Let us know.

When I graduated, I do remember that the president of Cornell said something pretty memorable. He was talking about how we needed to be proud of school and not just chase down any job that would guarantee the biggest salary (it was the 1980’s, after all). He looked out at the graduates and remarked: “You know, they say money can’t buy happiness. On the other hand, it can sure put you in some pretty nice places to look for it.”  Which might explain some of those celebrity speakers’ fees.

Today’s poll:

Voice your choice in today’s featured poll and tell us which one of this year’s graduation speakers you’d want to hear most:

1)   Denzel Washington

2)   Brooke Shields

3)   Stephen Colbert

4)   Amy Poehler

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