Valerie Jarrett won’t collect a speaking fee for giving a commencement speech next month at cash-strapped Northeastern Illinois University, her spokeswoman announced Tuesday.
The announcement came a day after the university said it had found a donor to step in and cover the $30,000 fee that the school originally planned to pick up.
The school faced criticism for agreeing to pay the former presidential adviser at a time when faculty and staff are being forced to take unpaid days off — and classes have been canceled for students for three days — as a way to offset a budget crisis caused by state cuts to higher education.
University spokesman Michael Hines said Tuesday that he does not expect the anonymous donor to follow through with the donation now that Jarrett has offered to give the May 8 commencement speech for free.
“Jarrett graciously volunteered to waive her fee, so we do not anticipate fulfillment of the pledge specifically earmarked for this purpose,” Hines said in an email.
In an email sent Tuesday, Amy Brundage, a Jarrett spokeswoman, said Jarrett had not been aware of the school’s financial situation.
“While keenly aware of the financial challenges in Illinois, we were not aware of the specific issues facing Northeastern Illinois University or that a donor would be paying for the speaking fee,” Brundage said. “Jarrett notified President [Richard] Helldobler this morning that she will not be accepting a speaking fee for the commencement address. Jarrett looks forward to addressing the graduates and other members of the NEIU community next month.”
There have been legislative efforts to try to stop public universities from paying commencement speakers. A measure last year died in the Illinois House, but State Rep. Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, said on Tuesday that he plans to refile the bill as soon as next week. He said speakers would be paid travel expenses, but not a fee for the speech.
“There are plenty of successful people who believe it’s about giving back. These people should be seeking out those venues to be giving those speeches,” Batinick said. “It should be an honor to give that speech.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidates Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) and state Sen. Daniel Biss addressed the issue Tuesday morning at a rally outside the Northwest Side university in support of teachers and students.
“Right now every penny needs to go into the classroom,” said Biss, a state senator from Evanston.
“This school’s first priority needs to be the students, needs to be the faculty, needs to be the staff, needs to be the classroom, and that needs to be the focus of every decision they make because they’re at the very edge of solvency because of Governor [Bruce] Rauner’s failure,” Biss said, hanging the lack of a state budget squarely on the governor.
Pawar said questioning the commencement fee is a valid argument but should not distract from the state’s larger problems.
“There is a legitimate question [of] whether they should be spending that money on a commencement speaker given the fiscal distress, but the governor continues to distract from the broader message that these institutions are doing more with less, he’s putting an austerity on Illinois,” Pawar said.
“I would say to the administration, spare me the sensationalism. Yes, we should need to call that into question, but why don’t you just do your job and fund the school?” Pawar said, pointing the finger at Rauner.
A Rauner spokeswoman released the following statement in response to Tuesday’s rally: “The governor continues working toward a truly balanced budget that ensures all our colleges and [universities] have the resources they need to help students succeed.”