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When wooing graduation speakers, colleges have their talking points

Schools not only offer honorary degrees and occasional fees, but send postcards, valentines and even videos to attract high-profile speakers.

March 17, 2014|By Jason Song, Los Angeles Times

The nearly two-minute UC Irvine video looks like an appeal to prospective students, featuring a montage of undergraduates walking around campus, dancing in classrooms and celebrating big basketball victories.

But the target audience becomes obvious at the end, when 7-foot-6 freshman center Mamadou Ndiaye looks directly into the camera while towering over a cardboard cutout of Barack Obama and says: "Mr. President, we should play ball together."

The video is the latest and perhaps most visible attempt by a university to attract a high-profile graduation speaker. Campuses have long tried to lure presidents and celebrities as a way of entertaining students and parents while drawing attention to their schools. But though schools still offer honorary degrees and even speaking fees in rare cases, some campuses have taken the wooing to a more visible level.

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First Lady Michelle Obama accepted an invitation from UC Merced in 2009 to be that campus' first commencement speaker after students and staff bombarded her with postcards, valentines and a video in which the narrator says: "Dear Michelle, we believe in you and we would be honored if you could be our keynote speaker..."

The cost of having a member of the first family on campus isn't cheap; Merced didn't pay the first lady but had to shell out nearly $700,000 for additional security and other measures. But her visit brought invaluable publicity to the campus, which had been open for only four years at that point.

"It was the best advertising we could have hoped for," said Patti Waid, a Merced spokeswoman.

UC Irvine officials so far have spent about $1.2 million for a graduation ceremony that will be held atAngel Stadium in Anaheim but said that money already had been earmarked for the school's 50th anniversary celebration. Officials estimated the total cost for commencement will be less than $2 million.

Procuring graduation speakers can be a bit like asking someone to the prom. Faculty and students often debate who they'd like to speak (please say yes, Jon Stewart) versus who would actually come (the locally elected politician is available, right?), while also discreetly asking students and alumni if they have connections to anyone famous.

Then invitations are sent and fingers are crossed as administrators keep an eye on the calendar, trying to determine when they should go to the second option if the first doesn't pan out.

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