The University of Houston, a public university, is proud to have snagged actor Matthew McConaughey as its 2015 commencement speaker. The University says that McConaughey has “the kind of star power that adds muscle to the University of Houston’s bold reputation campaign “Welcome to the Powerhouse.””
I understand that colleges and universities are fighting for funds and students, and describing what we used to call advertising as a “bold reputation campaign” is not the worst offense against good taste and our language that I have seen. But I was dazed and confused
when I learned how much UH is paying to hear McConaughey: $135,000, not including over $20,000 for the booking agency, and McConaughey’s travel expenses.
It has taken a month for UH to disclose these stunning figures because it had signed a confidentiality agreement with the booking agency, which, in resisting disclosure, worried that a “reporter or someone” might create “unfair negatives online.”
To put this move in perspective, Rutgers University faced some criticism for spending $30,000 to get Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison to speak at its commencement in 2011. Were there no Nobel Prize winners available this year?
I get it. UH’s graduation is taking place in its new $128 million football stadium, and one wouldn’t want to waste commencement, a key marketing asset, on some egghead. Still, they could have had Snooki for just a few dollars more than Morrison commands.
In fairness, some other universities also spend outrageous sums to have actors grace their commencements. One California university paid $75000 to hear from William Shatner. But some colleges and universities don’t pay commencement speakers at all.
So far the University seems determined to brazen it out, regarding the stadium and the actor as part of its push for top tier status. But as UH professor Robert Zaretsky points out, it is not at all obvious that McConaughey is a ticket to top tier status, nor is it obvious that top tier status is an end in itself. Certainly, as Zaretsky has also noted, the administration’s attempt to tie Zaretsky to the University of Houston’s mission has been feeble (he does philanthropy).
Perhaps there is a more convincing defense of the expenditure. If so, the University of Houston, should provide it.