This month, graduating seniors learned that their commencement speaker is to be Mike Tomlin ’95, head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Some expressed disappointment because the College announced earlier this semester a short list of speakers that included former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling and Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert.
Every year, the College tries to attract an impressive commencement speaker. However, the College never pays commencement speakers, instead granting them honorary degrees and reimbursing travel expenses.
“It has been the long standing tradition of the College not to pay honoraria to commencement speakers,” Secretary to the Board of Visitors Michael J. Fox said. “Receiving an honorary degree from the College has always been considered more meaningful than a dollar amount.”
Vice Provost for International Affairs Mitchell Reiss discussed the College’s reasons for not paying. He said that those who share the College’s values and care about commencement do not need monetary incentives to speak.
“You want to have somebody who hopefully personifies the values of the institution,” Reiss said. “The best way to get a speaker, generally, is to have a strong personal connection … I know that [former Secretary of State] Colin Powell, when he was at the State Department, received dozens of requests to speak at commencements. It’s impossible to honor all those — the best way to get someone is when there’s a personal connection.”
Reiss worked with Blair for three years while serving as the United States special envoy for the Northern Ireland peace process, and for this reason Reiss has been the College’s connection in attempts to book Blair for commencement.
He said that, unfortunately, Blair was unable to fit the speech into his schedule this year.
Reiss said that rumors Tony Blair had asked for $150,000 to speak were unfounded.
“Not to my knowledge [did Blair request that],” Reiss said.
“Students may be confusing his normal speaking fee with what he would need for commencement.”
Blair received $500,000 for a speech in Hong Kong last November, Forbes Magazine reported. However, he does not always charge for speeches.
Rumors persist that Blair had originally been booked for commencement but later backed out.
“That is not true,” a spokesperson for Blair told The Flat Hat.
Despite talk about Blair, Reiss said that he was “thrilled” that Tomlin will speak at commencement. Fox also expressed support.
“This year the opportunity presented itself to have a former graduate of the College — who at a very young age has enjoyed much success in his profession and now has the responsibility of leading one of the most storied professional football teams,” Fox said.
College officials are happy with the pick, but others say that monetary rewards can help attract the most famous speakers.
“When [a college] can afford a nice sum, it is much easier to negotiate with an individual,” Michelle Lemmons, president of the Dallas Speakers Bureau, told The New York Times. Lemmons’ company books commencement speakers.
Richard Barcham, a consultant for the Dallas Speakers Bureau, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that approximately 10 to 15 percent of colleges pay speakers. He added that more prestigious universities tend to grant honorary degrees instead of paying speakers.
To date, the College has granted 556 honorary degrees. The first was given to Benjamin Franklin in 1756.