The internet is abuzz with the news that Rutgers paid MTV reality star Snooki more ($32,000) for an appearance than it paid celebrated author Toni Morrison ($30,000). Morrison is delivering the commencement address at Rutgers’ graduation exercises this year, while Snooki did two shows on campus last night. And I’ve got to say, I’m more troubled by Morrison’s paycheck than Snooki’s. Here’s why:
Commencement addresses are traditionally given free or at reduced rates. This is, in fact, the first time in history that Rutgers has paid a graduation speaker. It turns out that the university recently renovated its football stadium, and wants to christen it with a blockbuster graduation event.
There’s a difference in funding, as well. Snooki was booked by a student-run, student-funded programming board whose money comes from student activity fees. The Rutgers University Programming Association exists for the sole purpose of bringing entertainment to campus, and by all accounts this was a popular booking — both of Snooki’s shows were standing-room-only. (Snooki’s fee won’t all go to her, by the way. Her two shows were in a mock interview format, and her interviewer, comedian Adam Ace, charges $2500 for solo appearances.)
Morrison’s fee, on the other hand, is being paid out of revenue from the university’s vendor contract with Pepsi. That money is being drawn out of a fund that is administered at the president’s discretion. It’s not a programming budget. It’s university money. Though Rutgers made a point in media coverage of saying that it didn’t dip into state funds or tuition to pay Morrison, that strikes me as a distinction without a difference, because if they hadn’t used the $30,000 this way, they would have had it available for something else.
I’m not saying — quite — that it’s a bad idea to give Toni Morrison $30,000 to deliver a commencement address, although it does seem a little weird to me to turn the awarding of an honorary doctorate into a paid gig. I’m just saying it’s not obvious to me that universities spending university money on a big-name speaker so they can justify holding graduation in a football stadium is a better idea than students spending student fees on programming that students are interested in.