UConn among big spenders for Hillary Clinton speeches

Washington - At least eight universities, including the University of Connecticut and three other public institutions, have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for Hillary Rodham Clinton to speak on their campuses over the past year, sparking a backlash from some student groups and teachers at a time of austerity in higher education.

In one previously undisclosed transaction, UConn - which just raised tuition by 6.5 percent - paid $251,250 for Clinton to speak on campus in April. Her fee was underwritten entirely by Edmund Fusco, a New Haven-based developer, and his family, according to Deb Cunningham, interim vice president for communications at the University of Connecticut Foundation.

"No taxpayer dollars went to support this," Cunningham said. "The purpose of this fund is really to bring engaging speakers to campus."

Other examples include $300,000 to address UCLA in March and $225,000 for a speech scheduled to occur in October at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

The potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidate also has been paid for speeches at the University at Buffalo, Colgate University and Hamilton College in New York, as well as Simmons College in Massachusetts and the University of Miami in Florida.

Officials at those five schools refused to say what they paid. But if Clinton earned her standard fee of $200,000 or more, that would mean she took in at least $1.8 million in speaking income from universities over the past nine months.

Since stepping down as secretary of state in early 2013, Clinton has given dozens of paid speeches to industry conventions and Wall Street banks. But her acceptance of high fees for university visits has drawn particularly sharp criticism, with some students and academic officials saying the expenditures are a poor use of funds at a time of steep tuition hikes and budget cuts across higher education.

At UNLV, where officials have agreed to raise tuition by 17 percent over the next four years, student government leaders wrote a letter to Clinton last week asking her to return the planned $225,000 fee to the university. If she does not, they say, they intend to protest her visit.

"The students are outraged about this," UNLV's student body president Elias Benjelloun said. "When you see reckless spending, it just belittles the sacrifices students are consistently asked to make. I'm not an accountant or economist, so I can't put a price tag on how much we should be paying her, but I think she should come for free."

Clinton's spokesman, Nick Merrill, declined to comment on the students' request.

At seven of the eight universities listed, officials said her fee was paid through a lecture series endowment or private donations and not by tapping tuition, student fees or public dollars. A spokeswoman for Simmons declined to discuss the arrangement with Clinton.

Merrill said the UCLA and UNLV fees are dedicated to go to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, the family's nonprofit group. Merrill said he did not know whether the other six went to the foundation. He also could not say whether the Harry Walker Agency, the speaker's bureau that manages Clinton's appearances, received a portion of the fees. Don Walker, the agency's president, did not respond to a request for comment.

Clinton's six-figure campus speaking fees could become a political liability for her in the 2016 campaign given that President Barack Obama and other Democrats have made college affordability a central plank of the party's agenda. Student debt is a signature issue for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, whom some liberals would like to see challenge Clinton in a primary. It's also something Clinton has talked about.

"I worry that we're closing the doors to higher education in our own country," Clinton said in March at a higher education conference in Texas. "This great model that we've had that's meant so much to so many is becoming further and further away from too many."

Clinton will headline the UNLV Foundation's fundraising gala on Oct. 13 at the Bellagio, a luxury hotel and casino, where seats cost $200 each and tables of 10 sell for between $3,000 and $20,000.

Brian Greenspun, a Las Vegas media baron and UNLV trustee, strongly defended Clinton's fee, which he said is expected to be fully covered by proceeds from the dinner. He said her star power will boost foundation donations.

"If you bring the right speakers in, people will come listen to them," he said. "If you bring the wrong speakers in, no one will show up. The right speakers, in today's capitalistic world, cost more money."

Harry R. Lewis, a professor and former undergraduate dean at Harvard University who has written critically about priorities in higher education spending, said speaking fees at Clinton's level amount to "an extravagant form of advertising" for colleges that should focus instead on more scholastic initiatives.

"What makes fees at this level outrageous ... is that one speaker's fee becomes comparable to what it costs to educate a student for several years," Lewis said. "At the same time you're putting your students into serious debt, as most institutions do, it's an allocation of resources that's very suspect."

Mark Sargent, UConn's student body president, said he believed Clinton's visit was worth the money.

"Having a political figure with the prestige of Hillary Clinton I think is a positive thing," he said, adding, "I can see how some people might be upset with her pricing."

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