Oprah Winfrey

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Why do universities think students want to hear celebrities make commencement speeches? And do the stars get paid?
Denise, Boston

If you're asking how much Oprah got for that commencement chat she just gave at Stanford, the answer is $5,000—about enough, I would imagine, to pay for half a tassel in her cream-and-gold-brocade sky palace.

Harvard, which recently recruited J.K. Rowling to speak, says it didn't pay her anything—and not because, as you might suspect, she made Ron marry Hermione. (I personally would have paid Rowling 50 bucks just to see Draco tap that.) A spokesman tells me the university never pays its commencement speakers.

Other schools do, though. And just how much may surprise you, so keep reading...

According to several reports, star speakers charge up to $50,000 for just a short talk. And even that sometimes isn't enough. Hence honorary degrees, and even use of a private jet, if all else fails to satisfy the celebrity.

Here's how it works.

In most cases, the university makes at least a nominal effort to work with the student body, or at least its president, to agree on which celebrity should don the rayon robe and crack mock-self-deprecating jokes. Then the president extends a formal invitation, often cosigned by a rep from the student body. In the case of Stanford, the university likes speakers who have some connection to the school. Oprah's goddaughter Kirby Bumpus was in this year's graduating class.

As for why these celebrities keep getting recruited, blame the students. Last year's Stanford commencement featured Dana Gioia, an accomplished poet who has won several awards. Students promptly complained Gioia wasn't famous enough.

"Unlike last year's highly criticized speaker choice," a student reporter wrote triumphantly in a February edition of the Stanford Daily, "this year's commencement speaker will not be suffering from a lack of star power."

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