WATCHDOGS: Struggling NEIU paid big for years for grad speakers
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The $30,000 fee Northeastern Illinois University was going to pay former White House adviser Valerie Jarrett was just the latest in a series of big fees the financially troubled state school has paid to snag prominent graduation speakers, records show.
Despite its money troubles — a Wall Street credit agency just dropped Northeastern deeper into “junk-bond” status — the state university has handed out five-figure fees to each of the speakers at its May commencement events the past four years.
That’s in sharp contrast to what’s done at other state schools, also facing tight-money times, including the three University of Illinois campuses, Northern Illinois University, Illinois State University and Eastern Illinois University. Administrators at those universities and others say they don’t pay graduation speakers beyond travel costs.
Jarrett — who was a top aide to former President Barack Obama — agreed earlier this month not to accept a speaking fee for the May 8 commencement after the Chicago Sun-Times reported she was being paid $30,000.
Jarrett said she was unaware of the extent of the financial problems facing the university, which serves about 10,000 students on five campuses, including the main campus on North St. Louis Avenue south of Bryn Mawr.
Northeastern has cut three days from the school year and ordered all 1,100 of its employees to take an unpaid week off during spring break to cut costs amid financial problems worsened by the state government’s continuing budget impasse. The employees also won’t be paid for the three canceled class days.
When Jarrett said she would abandon her speaker’s fee, she already had been paid in full, university records show — and Northeastern administrators agreed to let her keep $1,500 of the $30,000 after they learned Jarrett still expected the school to pick up the tab for her travel.
The public university has paid a total of nearly $46,000 to speakers for its May commencements since 2013, the records show, including:
• $15,000 to Democratic political operative Donna Brazile in 2013. Brazile ran Al Gore’s losing campaign for president in 2000 and twice was interim leader of the Democratic National Committee.
• $10,750 in May 2014 to Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin who is an MSNBC and Telemundo contributor.
• $10,000 in 2015 to Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress Rita Moreno, who appeared in the movie musicals “West Side Story” and “The King and I.”
• $10,100 last year to Evan Wolfson, a New York civil right lawyer who founded Freedom to Marry, which pushed successfully to legalize gay marriage.
Northeastern Illinois officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In the past, Illinois legislators have tried to bar public universities from paying commencement speakers, but those efforts haven’t gone anywhere. Some lawmakers say they plan to try again following the reports of how much Jarrett was to be paid.
State Rep. Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, says he thinks the law should allow state schools to cover travel expenses only and provide no payment for speeches.
“It should be an honor,” Batinick says, to speak at a university commencement.
In response to public records requests covering the past five years, the University of Illinois system — which includes campuses in Chicago, Urbana and Springfield — and other Illinois state universities say they don’t pay commencement speakers beyond travel costs, though Southern Illinois University Carbondale has done so twice in that period.
Eastern Illinois University spent a total of $2,273.92 to cover lodging, airfare, rental car and fuel for graduation speakers from 2013 through 2016.
The biggest name among them was Mike Shanahan, an Eastern Illinois graduate who coached the Denver Broncos to two Super Bowl victories. He addressed the Class of 2015. It cost the university $155.40 — the price to put Shanahan up for a night at the Unique Suites Hotel in downstate Charleston, records show.
Governors State University in University Park has spent close to $3,500 to cover travel expenses of graduation speakers over the past four years and plans to continue the policy for its two speakers this year. Its top recent payment, in 2015, was more than $1,300 to bring poet Nikki Giovanni to its south suburban campus from Virginia.
Illinois State University’s College of Fine Arts has spent about $3,300 since 2013 to welcome back alumni who speak at its graduation events.
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville also covers only travel costs — amounting to a total of $1,244.08 in state funds for this year’s and last year’s graduation speakers.
Western Illinois University doesn’t have to worry about such things. “Our president delivers the commencement address,” says Darcie Shinberger, spokeswoman for the campus in Macomb.
Southern Illinois University Carbondale now covers only travel costs. But it did pay $30,000 plus expenses to Frank Abagnale — the con man-turned-security consultant portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie “Catch Me If You Can” — to speak in 2013 and $40,000 plus expenses to actress Ali Wentworth in 2014.
Chicago State University said they needed more time to respond.
The City Colleges of Chicago covered nearly $6,000 in travel costs for rapper Common to be keynote speaker at a commencement ceremony in 2015, including first-class plane tickets from Los Angeles for Common and an assistant, two nights in a $589-a-night room at The Langham hotel downtown, meals from room service and airport limousines.
At Northeastern, the deal to bring in Jarrett next month grew out of discussions with Jim Oliver of Gotham Artists, a New York talent agency and speakers bureau, records show. Oliver previously had offered possible speakers to the university. On Jan. 24, Christie Miller, director of the school’s Office of Cultural Events and Community and Professional Education, asked for suggestions for a commencement speaker.
“We need someone with star power but also appropriate for a very diverse student body,” Miller wrote to Oliver, who declined to comment. “We had a LGBT activist last year so we don’t want that this year. But a diverse speaker to highlight leadership, motivation, etc. would be ideal.”
Oliver sent a list of speakers with biographies. Miller then asked for “further info on fee and availability for Van Jones, Valerie Jarrett and Erin Brockovich.”
She said Northeastern wanted a speaker for the May 8 commencement as well as for a May 6 lecture. But Oliver told her Jones, Jarrett and Brockovich couldn’t do anything more than the commencement because “all three are pretty busy here in early May.”
Jones, a CNN commentator, would have cost $55,000, according to Oliver. Brockovich, the environmental activist portrayed by Julia Roberts in the movie that bears her name, would have charged $24,000.
Initially, Jarrett’s asking price to speak at the state school was $45,000, plus first-class travel, accommodations and local ground transportation, though Oliver added, “Might have some flexibility on fee, we can discuss.”
Miller replied: “I think Valerie Jarrett might be first choice right now. What kind of flexibility do you think there is on the fee?”
On Feb. 8, the university made Jarrett an offer: $10,000 plus first-class expenses. But Miller made clear the university was willing to pay more.
“Our president asked me to make this offer,” she wrote to Oliver. “I realize there may be a counteroffer if she is interested.”
Eight days later, the university signed a deal with Jarrett for $30,000 that said: “Fee is inclusive of all expenses.”
The school sent Jarrett’s agency a “non-refundable deposit” of $15,000 on March 13 and a second payment covering the balance owed on April 7.
Trustees for the university apparently didn’t know of the deal or its terms until their April 6 meeting. According to a recording of the meeting, one member of the board said it was “disturbing” to pay Jarrett so richly at a time the university is facing deep financial problems.
Another trustee asked whether Jarrett might donate the fee to a student scholarship in her honor but was told, “The contract has been negotiated and signed.”
The board also approved an honorary degree for Jarrett, with three members voting against the measure.
On April 10, hours after the Sun-Times requested records related to the contract, the university revealed that Jarrett’s contract was for $30,000. But school officials said they found an unnamed donor to cover that.
The following day, a spokeswoman for Jarrett said she told the university “she will not be accepting a speaking fee.”
On April 13, Oliver wrote to Northeastern officials again. “She would still of course need her travel covered from D.C.,” Oliver said. “Those expenses are coming out to $1,500.”
Miller replied two minutes later: “Yes, that is fine. Thanks!”
Oliver told Miller that Gotham Artists had mailed the school a check for $28,500 — the fee she’d been paid minus travel costs, which weren’t itemized.
Asked about the travel expense Jarrett’s spokeswoman Amy Brundage said the amount was “standard.”
“The travel fee is simply a standard allotment in the contract, but we of course don’t expect the travel to cost that amount,” Brundage said.
Before going to work at the White House in 2009, Jarrett was a $300,000-a-year executive of The Habitat Company, a Chicago real estate development company. In January, in the last federal financial disclosure form she submitted as an Obama aide, Jarrett reported total assets of between $2.22 million and $7.86 million.