KABOOM! The University of Houston Is Paying Matthew McConaughey $135,000 To Give A Commencement Speech

head blowsThis isn’t just your usual, run-of-the-head Kaboom! where my brains go everywhere after a story makes my head explode. This is an angry Kaboom! where I kick my brain chunks around in disgust before the clean-up.

There is no possible excuse for this. The University is taxpayer funded, and if I lived in Houston, I’d be picketing graduation. The University announced in January that the 2013 Academy award-winner was speaking but avoided revealing his fee, until the persistent  the Houston Chronicle got the word on March 31. The paper said that the Celebrity Talent agency tried to block  the Chronicle’s Freedom of Information requests, arguing “that if UH tells the public how much it plans to pay McConaughey, a ‘reporter or someone’ might create ‘unfair negatives online.’ Yes, I think that was a reasonable assumption.

Scattered thoughts as I clean up the mess:

1. McConaughey plans to donate the money to charity, we are told. Really? You mean like Hillary donates her obscene fees to her own charity? This is PR deceit. Why doesn’t he just waive his fee?

2. The actor is a greedy creep for asking for such a fee, but the University is unethical for not telling him to go fly a kite after hearing such a demand.

3. Paying this ridiculous sum for a 20-minute speech (if that) is a beach of fiduciary duty. It is irresponsible spending and profligate wate of University resources by any standard. The students like McConaughey? So do I (I did, once): give them a graduation gift of CDs of his best movies. Better yet, get someone who isn’t an actor and whose memorable lines are his own.

4. Or even better, use that money to pay off one student’s tuition loans. Pay for another faculty position. Give bonuses to the maintenance staff. Almost anything would be a more reasonable and responsible use of $135,000 than this. Burning the cash would be only slightly worse. Burning the cash to keep a homeless mother warm for a night would be preferable.

5. Harvard, Yale, Stanford and other more prestigious institutions almost never pay speakers, and those schools can afford it. Of course,one reason they can afford it is that they don’t do stupid things like pay an actor to speak at commencement for $135,000, and spend their money on, you know, education. Coincidentally, these are the same schools that don’t pay sports coaches millions of dollars either.

6. This is a scandal, and sadly, not a new one, and not restricted to University of Houston. When Michelle Obama agreed to speak at the University of California-Merced, commencement costs increased by about $600,000. Unconscionable. When former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke at High Point University’s 2005 graduation, NPR reported that the appearance set the school back about $75,000. Despicable. University of Oklahoma handed over approximately $110,000 to have Katie Couric speak. Katie Couric?  Ridiculous. But not as ridiculous as when Rutgers University paid trashy, semi-literate “Jersey Shore” star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi $32,000 to speak to students,  $2,000 more than it paid Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison to give Rutgers’ commencement address the same year (2011.)

And they paid too much for her.

7. In Couric’s case, and some others, the funds came from a private donation. So what? That’s money that could have been put to substantive educational use, like a scholarship fund, instead of lining the pockets of a millionaire.

8. Do you know why school administrators pay these this foolish, wasteful, irresponsible fees? They do it because they want the prestige themselves. They want their school to get attention, and they are star-struck. In other words, they are unprofessional, conflicted dummies who are not qualified to oversee a budget.

9. There are many academic associations for colleges and universities. There ought to be member rules restricting speaker fees for commencement ceremonies, or better yet, a ban on them entirely.

10. With all the constant caterwauling about rising education costs, how high tuition is strangling the middle class and student loan debt is reaching crisis proportions, how dare any university, but especially one funded by taxpayer dollars, do this?



17 thoughts on “KABOOM! The University of Houston Is Paying Matthew McConaughey $135,000 To Give A Commencement Speech

  1. I have always found the celebrity commencement speech baffling. In my college the speech was really short and usually given by a senior administrator or one of the longer-tenured professors. It was treated as a small honor to be chosen to speak, and there were no fees, invitations, disinvitations or controversies involved.

  2. Quick consultation with imdb reveals that I’ve seen two of his movies. Couldn’t pick him out of a police lineup, though. Some of this stuff is being driven by students now, right? They vote on who they want to come (and no, I don’t think that’s a good idea)?

    • In spite of the fact that I have resisted joining Texas-Exes for years, they sometimes get it right. Getting the Admiral to do that speech was one of those times.

  3. I agree that this is absurd, but I disagree with your opinion on private donations. In those cases, it is not “so what?”. A private donation is just that, and it is irrelevant whether you or I think the money is better placed elsewhere. If some idiot wants to fund Couric or Snooki or any other moron, that is their choice. It’s better to wonder why the institution facilitates it. But a private donor funding a speech (however banal) does not need to put their money to “better” use. Their money, their choice. That is freedom.

    Just my two cents.
    (Always a reader, first-time commenter)

    • I have made the same point many times. But I also worked in university capital fundraising, and a university works hard, or is supposed to, to channel donors where they actually do the school the most good. You try to get donors to fund existing budget items, for example, rather than new programs.

      I should have been clearer. I can’t, and don’t, criticize the donor, even if he’s an idiot to give that kind of money to pay a millionaire actor to give a 135K speech. He has money to throw away—swell. I do criticize the school. The point is, if the school can get this bozo to pay for the speech, it almost certainly could have persuaded him or her to give to something better instead. That gift takes away opportunity funds in other areas…that’s what I mean by “so what?” “So what?” as in “this doesn’t make the fee less of a waste in any way.”

        • I agree, because I know there are morons in donor centers. BUT there are also always rich, intransigent donors who will say “I will give you X if you give me Y.” Perhaps this time it was Matthew. He is dreamy, after all. Hah.

          But really, when you have power-money, even a Dean can’t do a damn thing. He or she will bow and scrape and take the check. Why? Because the Regents will always demand it. That is fact (or at least I’m 99% certain it is). Unfortunate, but reality.

          By the way (and this comment is purposely made public for any young lawyers who happen to read this), your blog has helped me as a lawyer. Sometimes sensational, but always educational.

  4. I think the IRS Code ought to be revised with respect to speaker fees. Not to be anti-free speech, but to be pro-EQUAL speech. Yes: I am for free speech, but I am also for SPEECH EQUALITY. This perverse money culture must change. One way to effect that change would be to tax all paid speakers on a scaled basis, such that the maximum gross income any speaker might earn in any one speaking event would not exceed the federal minimum wage for one hour of “work” – whether the speech lasted 20 minutes or 2 hours or more. It’s only fair to do that. If we are serious about taxing the rich, this is one place to start. I feel that my speech is unequally protected, as long as this kind of “money talks” culture is allowed to thrive. I expect the richest celebrities from all walks of life to jump on this IRS reform bandwagon immediately. Those who don’t are in contempt of the public. Where is the Executive Order to make this happen already? Bueller?

  5. Commencement speaking is a dirty cartel. I tried getting into that market for 25% rate. You’d think price undercutting like that would net me 6-8 gigs a year.


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