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Big names at the podium

Getting a top-notch commencement speaker is a messy process college leaders find unnerving

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / May 14, 2010

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It’s a crisp spring day. Robed college graduates sit attentively, and their parents beam proudly, as an esteemed speaker — perhaps a world leader, literary figure, or movie star — dispenses nuggets of wisdom to guide the next generation.

If they only knew how much it takes to inject some pomp from the podium.

Behind the scenes, securing a high-profile commencement speaker often involves a messy, anxiety-filled yearlong courtship, a process one college president likens to making sausage.

Schools face intense competition to land a bold-faced name like Senator Scott Brown, this year’s hot ticket. An acceptance from someone of that stature can send a signal about the institution’s importance, presidents say.

“Frankly, it’s another way to market the university,’’ said Martin T. Meehan, chancellor of UMass Lowell, where NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will speak May 29. “The bottom line is all schools want to get distinguished speakers because they want their commencement to get visibility and notoriety.’’

The selection process and subsequent months of wooing a high-watt graduation speaker are often shrouded in mystery. Most college presidents charged with the task tap into personal connections, combing the rolodexes of trustees, faculty, and alumni. Some shell out tens of thousands of dollars to attract the right name. After all, their pick holds enormous weight and has the potential of generating positive publicity — or student protests.

Perennial favorites include U2 lead singer Bono, late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien, and, of course, the president of the United States. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Oprah are always popular, according to college officials who solicit student recommendations. But rarely are schools able to score such celebrities, at least not without paying a high price.

“A lot of universities assume that just because they’re an educational organization, they can get a high-profile celebrity at almost no cost,’’ said Shayran Samor, an events coordinator with KEY Speakers bureau in California. “We sort of shoot their hopes down. A lot of them ask for Oprah, but she’s just too busy, too rich. If she were to do it, she would do it as a favor.’’

Speaker fees, Samor said, range from $5,000 for someone like former New England Patriot Brian Holloway to $100,000 or more for a Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who also requires a private jet.

“Quite honestly, in many cases, these are paid performances,’’ said a former president of a local college who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the secrecy surrounding the process. “These are big productions, these commencements. And some pay fairly handsome fees to get the right speaker.’’

The speaking agency’s number of college commencement bookings, though, has dropped in recent years as the economy tanked, Samor said.

This year, many colleges have shifted from sizzle to substance, said Richard Doherty, president and chief executive of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts.

“We’re sort of in a more serious time,’’ Doherty said. “There is a lot going on that gives us pause to really reflect on where we’re going as a society and as a world.’’

Suffolk University, for example, has in the past paid undisclosed amounts for the likes of broadcast journalist Ted Koppel. This year, for its ceremony May 23, it opted for Partners in Health cofounder Paul Farmer, whose work was documented in Tracy Kidder’s book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains.’’

Suffolk’s president, David Sargent, met the global health pioneer in summer 2007 when Farmer treated him for a staph infection following knee replacement surgery.

Sargent reached out to Farmer last year after students recommended him as a commencement speaker.

Farmer, who also spoke at Emmanuel College’s graduation last weekend, was a sought-after speaker this year following the earthquake in Haiti. He does not take a fee, but Suffolk officials said the university made a significant donation, an amount they would not specify, to Partners in Health. Emmanuel also paid Farmer an undisclosed honorarium.

Even if colleges do not pay a speaker’s fee, they often pick up the tab for first-class flights, four-star hotels, and meals at fancy restaurants.

Nichols College, a small, business-focused school in Dudley that normally draws corporate executives as commencement speakers, managed to land Brown. He gave his first commencement address there last weekend, after being invited by fellow National Guardsman Tom Devine, a 1989 Nichols graduate who has known Brown for 12 years.

“When he won the election, I had someone from the board of trustees contact me saying, ‘Didn’t you say you know Scott?’ ’’ Devine said. In late February, during a National Guard training in Washington, D.C., Devine paid a visit to Brown’s office to say hello and make his pitch for Nichols.

Thomas McGovern, president of Fisher College in the Back Bay, was not so lucky.

“We wanted Scott Brown because obviously he was hot,’’ McGovern said. “I put out a couple of feelers and was basically told to forget it because he was so popular.’’ The school reached out to NECN host Jim Braude instead.

But McGovern recently ran into Brown at a reception in Washington and discovered a connection that could help make his case next year: Brown’s sister is a Fisher alumna.

Several college presidents privately lament the amount of time and energy they must devote to finding a celebrity commencement speaker, calling it a “necessary subplot in academic life.’’

“One of the greatest tension moments of a college president’s life is how the senior class will react when I announce the name of the speaker,’’ one former college president said.

“Very often, what a student wants is different from what an institution wants. And very often when I announced the name of the speaker, students would say: ‘Why would I want to listen to that person? That’s going to be boring.’ ’’

The more high-profile the speaker, the more scheduling headaches and potential mishaps an institution faces, another local college president said.

The president recalled trying to book a head of state one year and only making it past the outer layer of handlers.

“This person had received over 200 requests that year,’’ said the president, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “If you end up in that pile of stationery, you’re dead. You’re cooked.’’

Too often, the arms race for a star-studded commencement lineup shifts the attention away from celebrating the accomplishments of graduates, several presidents said.

So a few colleges — including Amherst, Cambridge, Dean, and Mount Ida colleges— eschew the aggravation altogether. They tap their own presidents.

“I don’t think Amherst has to prove anything by who it can get — or buy — as a commencement speaker,’’ said Amherst president Anthony Marx.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

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