Monday, September 29, 2014

A degree in six degrees with Kevin Bacon

When I was in college, back in the day when a college degree didn’t cost as much as a sprawling house in the burbs, I heard a number of interesting speakers. Most of them weren’t coming to my school – a small, no-name “St. Elsewhere” place – but I was in Boston, which offered plenty of opportunities to hear people speak for little or nothing.

The two that stand out the most were polar opposites: Howard Zinn and Ayn Rand. (For the record, I thought he was great and she was nuts.)

For my graduation, the speaker was Congresswoman Margaret Heckler, who, despite the fact that she was a Republican, was chosen to speak to us 400 “Catholic girls” – 395 the daughters of Democrats – because she was a Catholic woman, her maiden name was O'Shaughnessy, and she was herself a graduate of a Catholic women’s college (though not ours). I don’t imagine that Peggy Heckler was paid more than $500 for her star turn. Then again, she wasn’t exactly a cool, hip, happening celebrity. She was a boring, middle of the road politician.

The University of South Florida apparently has more money – thank you, taxpayers of Florida –to throw at speakers, and a greater desire than Emmanuel College to bring someone to campus who was going to provide entertainment.

And the University of South Florida had no problem throwing $70K Kevin Bacon’s way last April:

…to discuss philanthropy, social engagement and the pastime he inspired: “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”

“It’s 1994 and I’m just out there minding my own business, making movies and trying to support my family and all of a sudden people start talking to me about this game,” said Bacon, best known for his role as a dancing rebel in the 1984 film “Footloose.”

“It had taken off as this drinking game spreading across campuses, and I thought I was going to be responsible for all this young alcoholism.”

The crowd laughed as Bacon paced in black jeans and a black leather jacket, telling jokes and doing impressions.

And Bacon laughed all the way to the bank. $70K! Talk about bringing home the bacon!

Florida is not the only state frittering away funds to bring on celebrity speechifiers.

UNLV paid Hillary Clinton a whopping $225K to speak there last June. Arguably, Clinton brought more gravitas with her than did Kevin Bacon (three times as much, if you look at the speaker fees). Still, however you do the math, that’s nine students each taking on $25K worth of debt to offset this fee. (Okay, some/all of the money probably comes out of student fees, but let’s assume for a moment that all monies are purely fungible.)

Then there’s California, where state universities have shelled out more than $7.5 million in the last couple of years to hear from Tony Bennett ($110K) and William Shatner ($75K).

William Shatner? Beam me down and give me anyone within six degrees of separation of Kevin Bacon.

Schools in Florida paid Ron Paul $65K, Larry King $63.2K, and Sarah Silverman $50K. Apolo Ohno made $55K for speaking at a SUNY school.

Such fees “highlight the misdirection that besets our universities,” said David Neidorf, president of Deep Springs College, in Big Pine, California. The school’s 26 students do manual labor on a cattle ranch in the desert, while reading the likes of Shakespeare and Karl Marx.

“Five-figure speaking fees for anyone, let alone celebrities, are an embarrassment to anyone who cares about the moral and intellectual life of universities,” he said in an e-mail.

Manual labor on a desert cattle ranch?  (And, I looked at their web site: no smoking near hay bales.)

I have a couple of nieces who are seniors in high school, and I don’t think either one of them will be applying to Deep Springs, thank you. But I completely agree with David Neidorf.

Many of the big buck speakers are placed through speakers bureaus, which skim a significant percentage off the fee. So it’s no surprise that such agencies would defend the practice:

“It does change lives to see real people on a stage,” said Theo Moll, vice president of the college and university division at Keppler Speakers Bureau in Arlington, Virginia. “There’s also a lot of value in bringing prestige to the university.” (Source: Bloomberg)

Yes, it no doubt does change lives to see real people on a stage.

I suspect that, for everyone at Ford Hall Forum who thought Ayn Rand was a nutter, there was someone who thought she was on to something (and a great writer). And while most of those who saw Howard Zinn – speaking for free at BU, as I recall – probably decided to become more political, a few in the audience were probably driven into the arms (and wooden prose) of Ayn Rand.

But, sorry, seeing Kevin Bacon or William Shatner is probably not going to change anyone’s life.

I’m sure I’m being an anti-celeb snob here.

I actually think it’s okay that the University of Southern Florida paid Jane Goodall $60K a few weeks back.

But Kevin Bacon?

Come on!

At least it wasn’t someone from the cast of Real Houswives of Miami, I suppose.

Here’s an idea for a speaker-related learning experience.

Have the students line up a headlining speaker, but don’t let them fully pay for it out of student funds. Have them sell tickets to make up the difference.

This could sharpen a lot of skills: reading the market, negotiating, marketing, sales…

At South Florida, Bacon talked about his charity,, which seeks to connect celebrities with other small charities to spread awareness of social issues. Speaking without prepared remarks, he covered topics including his wedding anniversary, the birth of his children, the power of social media and his movie career.

As celebrities go, I actually don’t mind Kevin Bacon. He’s a decent actor, not all that glittery, and seems to be socially conscious.

But is he really worth $60K for a canned speech?

It’s one thing for corporations to do this.

I worked for a company that paid Jack Welch a quarter of a million to flog his book at a client event. And, as I recall, Jack insisted that we hire Charlie Rose (to the tune of $75K) to interview him. This turned out to be a colossal waste of money, but we were just screwing our shareholders.

But to think that kids are paying thousands in student fees and/or taxpayers are subsidizing public universities so that students get a “free” ticket to see William Shatner. Well, it’s enough to make Ayn Rand’s skin crawl.

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