College Payouts to Politicians

Hillary Clinton has received substantial criticism because of the large fees she has gotten to speak on college campuses. But the universities are also worthy of criticism. What possible justification is there for universities to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to any politician for a speech?  Universities aim to advance knowledge; politicians aim to advance themselves. Universities should value truth. Politicians are known for spin.

There is nothing wrong with welcoming politicians to campus. Students must use what they learn at college to critique the world, and politics is a worthy subject for interrogation. But the question remains why pay politicians to do it, when other aspects of college life in need of funds, such as instruction, facilities, and financial aid, are closer to the core mission of the university.

Such payments reveal two troubling aspects of the modern university. The first revolves around the questions of control. Formally, legal control may be vested in a board of trustees, but they are in fact busy, part-time actors who raise money rather than set policy.  At one time, real control was exercised by the faculty, but now administrators wield it—college presidents, provosts, assistant provosts, deans, associate deans,  directors, and coordinators.  These people likely benefit from invitations to politicians. Not only is the event itself an exciting interlude from the tedium of administration, but rubbing shoulders with movers and shakers confers importance. The bureaucratic university naturally celebrates the flash of celebrity rather than quiet accumulation of knowledge.

Another even more disturbing possibility is that the invitations show that much of the function of a modern university lies in signaling rather than in instruction. Under this view, students benefit not so much from anything they learn in college, but from the signal that they have been credentialed by an institution that admits and graduates other very smart people. That signaling function suggests that the overriding consideration will be attracting the brightest possible students rather than teaching them anything in particular. Expensive speaking invitations garner publicity for the university and help to attract impressionable youth.

This latter explanation suggests one reason that universities seem to invite more liberal than conservative politicians for paid speeches. And universities demonstrably invite far more liberals to give commencement addresses. If the young, on the whole, are more liberal, such invitations are likely to be a more effective advertisement.

But paid political speeches remain unfortunate. Let once and future politicians make their money by speaking to trade groups. They will not be left broke.