$25,000 for a graduation speaker, no joke; but many schools get bang without bucks

By Patricia Alex, staff writer, The Record

The graduating class of Kean University heard Darrell Hammond, a former “Saturday Night Live” cast member, serve up jokes on Thursday about his less-than-stellar grade-point average and boozing during his college days in Florida.

The price tag for his message: $25,000.

On Friday, graduates at Montclair State University will be treated to a commencement address by prolific and best-selling author James Patterson.

The price tag: car fare to campus.

Montclair State and the majority of other public colleges and universities in New Jersey don’t pay their commencement speakers, usually providing transportation costs at most. It has worked out OK: This year’s crop of free speakers included the state’s governor and a U.S. senator, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and other notables.

Only Kean and Rutgers University paid keynote graduation speakers, although the practice has gained traction nationally as schools vie for media attention and prestige. But the quest for attention can sometimes backfire.

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The university, in Union, is one of the state’s largest and educates many first-generation college students. Like all the state universities, it has struggled with declining state support and rising tuition over the past decade. The faculty has been at odds with school President Dawood Farahi and has voted no-confidence in him.

The president of the faculty union said the commencement honorariums were questionable given school finances. “It certainly seems an excessive amount given that the president is always saying we’re in a dire situation,” said James Castiglione, a physics professor who has taught at Kean for 17 years. “You think they might want to bring in speakers with impeccable academic credentials.”

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