How much a Utah college is paying Rainn Wilson from ‘The Office’ to speak at graduation

How much a Utah college is paying Rainn Wilson from ‘The Office’ to speak at graduation
How much a Utah college is paying Rainn Wilson from ‘The Office’ to speak at graduation

It turns out being the assistant to the regional manager is a well-paying gig.

Rainn Wilson, who held that job title in his famed TV role as the irascible Dwight Schrute in “The Office,” was selected by Weber State University to give this year’s commencement address. And the northern Utah school is shelling out a hefty fee for his speech.

The actor’s contract is for $125,000 for a 20-minute talk at the graduation ceremony, according to the paperwork obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through a public records request.

To paraphrase Jim Halpert: bears, beets, “Battlestar Galactica” and big bucks.

It’s the highest cost for a commencement speaker at any of the eight public colleges and universities in the state this year — and the highest for any school here in at least the last decade.

The contract doesn’t specify how much will go to Wilson, who is also a writer, producer and director, and how much to his booking agency, All American Entertainment, that signed the contract.

The company’s founder, Greg Friedlander, responded to an email from The Tribune saying that “confidentiality clauses within our agreements” prevent him from providing details.

He said: “I can confirm that the payment to our agency was an all-inclusive fee, encompassing various expenses such as travel and other customary costs associated with this type of engagement.”

For Weber State’s part, school spokesperson Bryan Magaña said 70% of the fee for Wilson to speak — $87,500 — was covered by a private donation from an anonymous donor.

The remaining $37,500 of the bill will be paid by the publicly funded school.

That balance is more than double the next highest fee for a commencement speaker in the state: Salt Lake Community College has a $15,000 contract with Winter Olympic gold medalist for speedskating — and SLCC student — Erin Jackson.

Meanwhile, two schools — Utah Tech University and Southern Utah University — will have only student speakers, without any spendy contracted speakers to address the graduates. Both said it was part of a cost-saving measure.

In recent years, there’s been scrutiny on the spending for speakers at graduation ceremonies nationwide.

In 2015, actor Matthew McConaughey was paid $135,000, with an additional $30,000 in fees to a booking agent, for his commencement address to the University of Houston, according to The Houston Chronicle, which fought to get his contract. McConaughey donated the money to charity, but it launched a reckoning over the fees for graduation ceremonies.

The University of Massachusetts-Amherst, for instance, paid astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson $25,000 for his graduation speech, plus nearly $3,000 on top of that for expenses.

Actor William Shatner got $75,000 for his talk at one California university’s commencement, according to a Bloomberg News report. And actor Kevin Bacon — who’s returning to Utah this year to celebrate the anniversary of “Footloose” — was given $70,000 for his speech at the University of South Florida.

It was enough to prompt New Jersey to create a statute requiring that commencement speaker fees be capped at $10,000 for schools in the state. (That came after former “Jersey Shore” reality star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi was paid $32,000 to speak at a graduation in 2011.)

Utah doesn’t have any similar law limiting the cost of speakers. And it doesn’t appear any schools here have individual policies — although Utah State University says it typically doesn’t pay for graduation speeches.

It’s largely up to each university how to spend their budget for the ceremonies. And Weber State is betting that with his choice, Wilson could earn a mug for being the world’s best commencement speaker.

Why did Weber State pick Wilson?

Magaña said that Weber State “had the means to be more creative and strategic with commencement” this year.

Along with the private donation, the school shifted funds in its existing graduation budget that typically go toward meals or other activities to cover the extra expense.

“Weber State is always conscious of cost,” Magaña said. “We’re known for being a bit frugal when it comes to our budget, so it’s always going to surprise folks on those occasions when we spend a little more than usual.”

The school did raise tuition this year, but by the lowest percentage — 2.75% — of any public university in the state.

Magaña said when the school polled students about potential speakers, most indicated they wanted someone with name recognition that would make the day memorable. And the announcement was met with plenty of excitement — and memes, GIFs and loads of exclamation points — on social media.

One person wrote: “Ogden is basically Utah’s Scranton, so this makes sense.”

Another suggested that everyone in the audience dress up like the character Dwight, as his co-worker Jim does to tease him in the show. If that happens, Weber State will have to find a way to make sure the real Wilson is on stage because “identity theft is no joke, Jim.”

“Rainn Wilson is a familiar face, a household name, and his work obviously resonates with so many people,” Magaña added. “What a lot of people may not know, though, is that he holds a master’s degree, so he can speak to the value of higher education and the opportunities it provides.”

(Chris Pizzello | Invision/AP) Rainn Wilson at an awards show in 2015, in Los Angeles.

Wilson received a master of fine arts degree from New York University’s Graduation Acting Program. He will also receive an honorary degree from Weber State at the event, along with three other individuals who have made an impact in the local community.

Weber State President Brad Mortensen said in the announcement of the school’s commencement speaker last month, that he hopes bringing in a big-name celebrity will make the ceremony a community event as well as a celebration of graduates. It is free and open to the public.

The ceremony starts at 7 pm on April 26 at the Dee Events Center in Ogden. There are no tickets; instead, seats will be given on a first-come basis. But priority seating will be given to graduates and their families, according to the university. The venue can host 11,000 people.

The school is graduating 3,700 students this year.

“Bringing in someone like Rainn gets more eyes on our graduates, and more eyes on Weber State as the place where you can achieve your college dream,” Magaña said. “To quote ‘The Office,’ ‘That’s a win-win-win scenario.’”

Does Wilson have any Utah connections?

It does not appear Wilson has any direct connections to Utah or Utah college graduates.

He was once in a commercial with former Utah Jazz player Deron Williams and joked about the state.

“Hey, you’re from Utah,” Wilson says. “Great state. “I got the crap beat out of me in Provo one time.”

Many in the state also point to an Instagram post from Wilson in 2017 where he shared a picture of two female missionaries from the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who he said visited with him.

“I was visited by some very nice Mormon missionary sisters this morning,” Wilson wrote.

Utah also has a penchant for Jell-O, which can be used in a prank to hide office supplies.

Who is speaking at Utah’s other colleges? And how much are those contracts for?

• The University of Utah

The U. will have Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith America, speak at its commencement event on May 2.

Patel is a public impact scholar at the U., a program where the university brings in national educators and authors to contribute to campus discussions. With that, the U. has an existing two-year contract with Patel, and he is paid $60,000 a year. As part of that, he is required to speak at graduation.

“Sometimes we select a prominent alum,” said U. spokesperson Chris Nelson on the school’s process for picking a speaker. “Sometimes the speaker is selected for their unique perspective or because their organization works on issues related to the events of the day.”

Last year, Tim Shriver, the co-founder and chair of UNITE — an initiative that pushes for unity — spoke at the U.’s commencement. He was also under contract as a public impact scholar. The four speakers before that, which included former Jazz player Donovan Mitchell in 2021, received no payment for their addresses.

The U. paid Ben Nemtin, a mental health advocate, $28,000 to speak in 2018.

•Utah State University

USU in Logan will have Gail Miller, local business leader and philanthropist, speak at its ceremony on May 2.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gail Miller speaks during a ceremony marking the donation and naming of the Gail Miller School of Business at Salt Lake Community College in Taylorsville, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022.

The school is paying any reimbursements for her travel to campus, but will not be paying a speaker fee.

“She exemplifies USU’s mission to serve our community,” said USU spokesperson Amanda DeRito, “and we’re excited to hear what she has to say to our graduating seniors.”

•Utah Valley University

The Orem school that boasts the largest student enrollment in the state will welcome Jamie Kern Lima to the stage for its event on May 2.

Lima is the founder of IT Cosmetics and an advocate for female entrepreneurs. A spokesperson for UVU said Lime is flying in on her own private jet and not charging the school for her speech. The university will pay for her hotel room.

“Most people know her as a successful cosmetics executive, but she has also been a Denny’s waitress, struggling entrepreneur, and a sufferer of rejections,” said UVU President Astrid Tuminez in the announcement.

• Salt Lake Community College

SLCC is paying $15,000 in a contract to have Erin Jackson speak at its ceremony on May 3.

Jackson won a gold medal for speedskating at the 2022 Winter Olympics — becoming the first Black woman to do so in an individual sport. She is considered the best female 500-meter speedskater in the world.

Jackson is unique in that she’s also currently a student at SLCC, where she’s continuing to take classes after already earning an associate degree in computer science there and a bachelor’s degree in Florida.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Erin Jackson of the United States after competing in the women’s 1000 meter speed skating finals during the ISU Speed ​​Skating World Cup in Kearns on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024.

• Snow College

The small school with two campuses will have Brent Brown speak in Ephraim on May 3 and Dennis Jorgensen speak in Richfield on May 2.

Jorgensen is a business owner in central Utah. Brown is a businessman and higher education advocate. The only costs, according to a spokesperson for the school, are providing a hotel room and dinner for Brown.

• Southern Utah University

SUU will have student speakers only this year at its April 25 commencement, so there is no additional cost.

The school came under fire last year for its choice of commencement speaker when it chose Latter-day Saint apostle Jeffrey Holland. A petition opposing his speech gained thousands of signatures, and students protested the election.

Their concern was over past rhetoric from Holland where he’s opposed LGBTQ+ relationships. During a speech at Brigham Young University, Holland told students to take up their intellectual “muskets” to defend The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its “doctrine of the family and… marriage as the union of a man and a woman .” He also criticized the commencement speech by BYU’s 2019 valedictorian, who declared himself a “gay son of God.”

Holland ultimately was sick at the time and didn’t speak at the graduation ceremony.

SUU said it’s working to create a new process for the future to select commencement speakers.

•Utah Tech University

Utah Tech will also have student speakers only for its ceremony on May 3. It also has no cost for that.

“The decision to not bring in a commencement speaker was twofold: to use our monetary resources wisely and to prevent the commencement ceremony from becoming too long,” said Utah Tech spokesperson Jyl Hall.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

 
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