Over the weekend, the most incredible news broke that Nobel and Pulitzer prize winner, and living institution, Toni Morrison was charging Rutgers University $30,000.00USD to speak at this year’s commencement ceremony. I can’t decide who has the tinnier ear here: Morrison or Rutgers. Perhaps they’re both equally culpable.
For the first time, New Jersey’s flagship university will pay a commencement speaker. Rutgers is planning to pay Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison $30,000 to give the main address at the university’s commencement in May.
Traditionally, schools have lured speakers with honorary degrees instead of cash. However, other schools have started using money to attract big-name speakers.
What a tasteless and shocking way to make history! In the midst of an economic depression, a public university pays $30,000 to a wealthy author to speak at graduation. It doesn’t matter if private funds are being used to pay Morrison or not — the fact remains that $30,000 could go a long way to providing scholarship money for more Rutgers students.
Do we need to take up a collection for Morrison? Is that that desperate for money that she needs to squeeze blood out of the Rutgers rock? Some speakers take a fee and then turn around and donate it back to the university — but that doesn’t currently seem to be the case in Rutgers/Morrison vs. The People.
Why create this Pageant Play of celebrity and façade and wealth and power instead of honoring the joyous celebration of affordable education? Do we really need a cult of personality parade on graduation day? Why can’t the university president speak for free? Are there no faculty stars on the Rutgers campus who could do the job? Why do we need perceived star power to send our graduates off into the atmosphere?
This is a public relations fiasco for Morrison and Rutgers. The only way to fix this inequity in practice — and not perception — of a poor land grant school and rich, storied, writer is for Morrison to announce the creation of the “Toni Morrison Scholarship Fund” and then donate a million dollars to Rutgers along with the return of her $30,000 speaking fee. Then, perhaps, the right example will begin to be set by two institutions that should have known better.