US universities pay big bucks for stars

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Hundreds of screaming University of South Florida students rose as a 56-year-old actor took the stage at the school's Tampa campus to discuss philanthropy, social engagement and the pastime he inspired: Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

"It's 1994 and I'm just out there minding my own business, making movies and trying to support my family and all of a sudden people start talking to me about this game," said Bacon, best known for his role as a dancing rebel in 1984 film Footloose.

"It had taken off as this drinking game spreading across campuses, and I thought I was going to be responsible for all this young alcoholism."

The crowd laughed as he paced in black jeans and a black leather jacket, telling jokes and doing impressions.

He collected US$70,000 (S$89,000) for the April lecture.

From California to New York, public universities routinely pay fees that exceed four years of tuition for speeches that last little more than an hour. The practice drew scrutiny after students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, protested Hillary Clinton's US$225,000 honorarium in June.

A Bloomberg News review of public records at state universities in California, New York and Florida shows a rich market for those with something to say, regardless of traditional academic accomplishment.

"It's a pretty sad state of affairs when we can't give scholarships to needy students but we can throw all this money at a celebrity speaker," said senior fellow Pablo Eisenberg at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy.

California's universities have paid more than US$7.5 million for speeches and performances since 2012, including US$110,000 for singer Tony Bennett and US$75,000 for actor William Shatner.

Florida schools paid more than US$2 million, including US$65,000 for former congressman Ron Paul, US$63,200 for TV interviewer Larry King and US$50,000 for comedienne Sarah Silverman.

In the State University of New York system, where only four of the 10 largest schools provided data, speakers have taken in more than US$182,000 since 2012, including US$55,000 for Olympic speedskater Apolo Ohno.

Such fees "highlight the misdirection that besets our universities", said president David Neidorf of Deep Springs College in Big Pine, California. The school's 26 students do manual labour on a cattle ranch in the desert while reading the likes of Shakespeare and Karl Marx.

"Five-figure speaking fees for anyone, let alone celebrities, are an embarrassment to anyone who cares about the moral and intellectual life of universities," he added.

For all their costs, the speeches are often light on substance.

In 2006, filmmaker Spike Lee collected US$25,000 for a 10-minute commencement talk at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. This year, comedian Darrell Hammond told graduates there about his booze-filled college days in a speech that earned him a similar amount.

In Florida, where the student-activity fees have risen by as much as fourfold since 1994, famous speakers have found some of their most lucrative payouts.

Four years of in-state tuition at the University of Florida in Gainesville costs about US$25,000. Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti and TV personality Bill Nye each earned more than that in US$40,000 speeches to students whose activity fees, charged on top of their tuition, paid the bill.

Students are often in charge of recruiting speakers and approving compensation. Since most have little experience negotiating contracts, talent agencies that collect a percentage of speaking fees play an outsized role, said Mr Eisenberg.

Schools, agencies and some students say the speakers are a key part of learning.

"It does change lives to see real people on a stage," said vice-president Theo Moll of the college and university division at Keppler Speakers Bureau in Arlington, Virginia. "There's also a lot of value in bringing prestige to the university."

Student Woodra Keane, who runs the University of South Florida's lecture series, said they are "powerful, inspirational".

Keppler Speakers' website lists New York Knicks basketball coach Phil Jackson, primatologist Jane Goodall and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak among college speakers with fees above US$50,000.

US schools that pay are following the model of the corporate world, said Mr Eisenberg. Banks and trade groups pay fees as high as US$1.5 million to bring top talent to meetings and conferences.

On campus, many speakers reflect on their own time in college and their road to success. The speeches can range from comedy routines to serious discussions of current events and often include questionand-answer sessions. John Legend does some singing.

At South Florida, Bacon talked about his charity, sixdegrees.org, which seeks to connect celebrities with other small charities to spread awareness of social issues. Speaking without prepared remarks, he covered topics including his wedding anniversary, the birth of his children, the power of social media and his movie career.

 
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