'Snooki' inspired bill could cap N.J. college speaker fees: How much is too much?

The former reality star received $32,000 for a comedy appearance at Rutgers University in 2011, more than the school paid Nobel-prize winning author Toni Morrison was paid to deliver the school's commencement address in the same year.

Kevin R. Wexler/The Record/AP/File
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (r.) speaks with reality stars Nicole 'Snooki' Polizzi (c.) and Jenni 'JWoww' Farley (l.) on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, N.J., May 24, 2013. A bill inspired by Ms. Polizzi heads to Governor Christie's desk after passing the N.J. Assembly on Thursday, March 23, 2017.

The reality show “Jersey Shore” hasn’t been on the air in nearly five years. But it’s still making New Jersey legislators mad. 

A bill capping payments for guest speakers at the state's universities to $10,000 passed 74-0 in the Democrat-controlled Assembly on Thursday, after the state Senate also gave it a unanimous green light. The law, which goes now to the desk of Gov. Chris Christie, was sponsored by Republican Assemblyman John DiMaio, who says it was inspired by two 2011 visits to Rutgers University: one by “Jersey Shore” star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, who was paid a total of $32,000 to speak there; and another Nobel winner Toni Morrison, who received $2,000 less than Ms. Polizzi. 

“Paying Snooki $32,000 to tell Rutgers graduates to ‘Study hard, but party harder,’ is an outrageous waste of money. Taxpayers and students deserve better,” Assemblyman DiMaio said in a statement, according to Politico.

The sum paid to Ms. Polizzi, the university was quick to note in a press release from that year, did not come from state funds, tuition, or donor contributions.

Rather, the student groups that decided to invite the reality show star for the comedy events pay for such visits using mandatory student fees, university spokeswoman Karen Smith told the Associated Press. And honorariums for commencement addresses, including the $35,000 offered to this year’s speaker, musician and actor Steven Van Zandt, are drawn from funds produced by a beverage contract with Coca-Cola, Ms. Smith added.

But the bill appears to underscore a growing backlash against hefty fees for all manner of speaking engagements at public universities pinched by tight budgets and soaring tuition costs.

Last May, Margo Sarlo, director of accounts at All American Entertainment, told the Associated Press that the booking agency had gotten fewer requests for paid graduation speakers.

"Most universities are trying to offer an honorary degree, or they're requesting somebody to speak for free," she said. "They have to be careful about how much they spend."

Of the 20 universities that provided records about commencement-speaker costs to the wire service, 16 said they paid no such fees that year. But some do shell out, and from public funds: In 2016, New Jersey’s Kean University, for example, matched the $40,000 raised by student groups with another $40,000 from the school’s general fund to bring retired astronaut Mark Kelly and Humans of New York founder Brandon Stanton to speak.

It’s not clear whether Governor Christie, a Republican, will sign the bill. He was no fan of the show, disparaging it publicly as a stain on the state’s image. But on Thursday, he told reporters at a press conference that he would not waste time talking about it.

“This is what happens when you have a part-time Legislature that is looking for things to do,” Mr. Christie said. “I have much bigger issues to be concerned about in a state with a $35 billion budget, with all the different challenges and opportunities we have, for them to be worried about micro-managing what universities in this state decide to pay their commencement speakers."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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