In my basement, along with my Brunswick Black Beauty bowling ball, is a ratty old t-shirt given to me by a friend in graduate school, emblazoned with a picture of Karl Marx and the slogan "Earn Big Money, Become a Historian." It's one of the many things that I just can't throw away. The humorous slogan aside, I'm fortunate that I am not one of the army of adjuncts who dominate our profession. That I get paid for speaking and writing about things that I care about is great remuneration. But my comfortable existence is nothing compared to Bill Clinton's.
Between 2001 and 2005, our former president earned $31 million dollars in speaking fees. With a few exceptions, he charged between $100,000 and $300,000 per speech. It's quite a roster of speaking engagements. I'm sure that Bill's sponsors at Oracle, Credit Suisse First Boston, and Goldman Sachs and dozens of other banks, corporations, and business groups had no problem coming up several hundred grand to lure Bill to their events. Many CEOs lose that much change in their couches each year. But non-profits, including religious congregations, colleges, hospitals, and universities, also ponied up big bucks for a few hours of Bill's time. Salem State could have hired two assistant professors with full benefits and change to spare for the $125K that Bill charged. Tufts could have covered tuition, fees, room, and board for three needy Rustbelt-born history majors. And UC Davis could have increased the stipends for a hundred teaching assistants by $1000 dollars per head. OK, I know that bringing in marquee speakers can enhance an institution's reputation, persuade proud alumni to open their wallets and donate to alma mater, and maybe even attract a little favorable press attention. But six figures is an absurdly high price to pay, even for a golden-tongued former denizen of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. No speech is that good.
I don't have anything against remuneration for hard work. Out-of-town speaking gigs are time consuming and exhausting, even if they are also usually invigorating. But when the fee for a single afternoon's talk puts someone into the top tier of income earners, then I have a problem.
Inspired by Bill, I'm upping my own speaker's fee. (Reality check: that tattered t-shirt keeps me honest. My fee is on a sliding scale, to each host according to his or her means.) Alas, even if I double or triple my average fee, it will take me tens of thousands of talks to reach Bill's $31 million. But I've given my share of barn burners. I promise you'll get your money's worth. And Oracle and Credit Suisse: I'm waiting for an invitation. I'll take your $200K any day.