A good talking-to isn't easy to find

For The Record

May 28, 2000|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,Sun Staff

It's the season of college commencement speeches. All across the country, giddy seniors are sitting in auditorium halls and on freshly mowed expanses of green lawn, soaking up words of wisdom and wit: Go forth and conquer. Stay true to yourself. The world is your oyster. ("Can you imagine anything more revolting than that?" quipped former senator and astronaut John Glenn last year at Brandeis University's graduation).

Absent, however, is this cynical lesson: It isn't what you know, it's who you know.

But we don't have to tell that to the Class of 2000. It may be abundantly clear already, depending on whether they're listening to a commencement speech by Oprah Winfrey or by some humdrum local politician whose name they barely know.

In the annual scramble for a headliner to cap yet another academic year, many colleges bank on connections. It's how little Salem College in North Carolina snagged Oprah this year: Her friend Maya Angelou's niece is a graduating senior. Vice President Al Gore talked up Columbia University Law School's class earlier this month, then handed his daughter her diploma. And comic Drew Carey, himself a college dropout, headed back home to do his duty at Cleveland State University.

But what's a university to do if it has exhausted the Rolodexes of its students and alumni and has come up empty? After all, there are more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the country, so the competition for luring a luminary onto campus can get fierce. That's where ingenuity, an honorary degree and (sometimes) cold hard cash come in handy.

Jay Callahan is a senior associate at Keppler Associates in Virginia, which represents Leslie Stahl, William F. Buckley Jr., and Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell, among others. His firm tends to hear from panicked colleges at the 11th hour -- sometimes after a graduating class has unrealistically pinned its hopes on a pie-in-the-sky speaker (Callahan defines those as a Bill Gates or Steven Spielberg type).

Colleges that go through a firm like Keppler usually end up paying big fees, though Callahan says his clients are often willing to negotiate their usual rates. "I think they view it differently," he said. "They view it as an honor. Plus, it's usually only 15 to 20 minutes, as opposed to an hour with a half-hour Q-and-A."

But even with a discount, few colleges can afford the six-figure fees Jay Leno and other heavy hitters reportedly get for a speech. While some prestigious universities seem to land big names without too much trouble -- Harvard got Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan last year and Berkeley boasts Secretary of State Madeleine Albright this year -- smaller schools often have to employ creative means to lock up desirable speakers.

Take Pennsylvania's Lehigh University, which wanted "Today" show host Katie Couric last year but could afford to pay only a $1,000 honorarium. First students plied her with letters. Then several seniors drove to New York at 3 a.m. and stood outside the "Today" show taping to plead their case in person. One student's father even lobbied Couric at a business dinner both attended. Eventually, a worn-down Couric agreed -- and got an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree for her trouble.

Of course, a drawback of booking a media star like Couric or CBS News anchor Dan Rather or a big-name politician is the risk that a big news story or crisis could pull them away.

Elon College in North Carolina found itself without a baccalaureate speaker for a different reason. The scheduled orator, Samuel Proctor, the former president of AT&T, died the day before his address. The college's own president stepped in.

Faculty members are often the speakers of choice for St. John's College in Annapolis. According to spokesperson Barbara Goyette, students tend to pick a "heart and soul type" -- a teacher they feel a connection with. And who is to say their speeches aren't as impressive as those by the big names? A couple of years ago, a parent in the audience who happened to be a radio producer was so impressed by a professor's speech at St. John's that she asked him to give it again -- this time for broadcast on National Public Radio.

Though faculty members may not inspire the frenzy that John F. Kennedy Jr. did when he traveled to the Eastern Shore to speak at Washington College's graduation last year, at least it's a safe bet that students won't boo them. That's what happened this year at Michigan State, when the speaker was James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, an agency currently out of favor among student activists.

When convicted murderer Mumia Abu-Jamal spoke at Ohio's liberal Antioch College -- via a taped address from on death row in Pennsylvania -- townspeople protested. Even gentle, sweater-wearing Fred Rogers was the subject of complaints by some students at Old Dominion University, who likened his appearance to one by Barney the dinosaur. (For the record, Mr. Rogers ultimately received a standing ovation.)

It all seems like a tremendous amount of trouble to go to for a brief speech, so perhaps Towson University has come up with the most sensible solution of all. Sure, their selection process is time-consuming -- they begin with a pool of candidates, check references and do interviews. But when a decision is finally made, no one worries that the speakers will demand an honorary degree, a hefty fee or cancel at the last minute.

At Towson, the speakers are graduating students.

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