A takeaway from Matthew McConaghey’s UH Commencement Address

I happen to like Matthew McConaughey quite a lot, even in his goofy, cheesy roles. To be honest, I haven’t even seen his latest Renaissance as a serious actor and a lot of my affection comes from his days as a naked-bongo-playing marijuana aficionado and interviews he did about life philosophy and fitness in those halcyon days. He came across then as a down-to-earth guy, an outdoor nut whose modus operandi was to be open, friendly, and active. From the little I’ve read about him recently, including his recent University of Houston commencement address, many of the same descriptors hold true.

A link containing a set of takeaways from McConaughey’s UH commencement address came across Twitter yesterday. The takeaways corresponded to the McConaughey persona, including one where he said that the things motivating him did not include money. The article notes that McConaughey is a very wealthy man and I fully believe him when he says that money does not motivate him, even while noting that he is privileged enough to not need to worry about where meals or rent is coming from. In fact, it is a noble sentiment to aspire to goals that are not just about money and the things money can buy. That is a privilege and the world may be a better place if more super-wealthy people internalized that worldview. What’s more, it is a noble sentiment to preach at a commencement, whether said as a warning to young men and women who may make a lot of money or as words of comfort to the soon-to-be underemployed.

Yet, in this instance, coming from a speaker I like, who I believe was being honest, and being delivered in an appropriate forum, I did not like the message.

McConaughey, as the article notes, is a very wealthy man. I don’t want to take anything away from him or say that he didn’t work for his money, but to point out the fact. He is wealthy. He was also reportedly paid in excess of 140 thousand dollars for his speech at the UH commencement.

I know next to nothing about the finances at the University of Houston and a quick google search appears to indicate that the average salary for assistant professors at UH run higher than many other institutions, at 92K, though that figure is skewed by some starting salaries at 206k. Full professors average 115k, but with a lower ceiling than assistant professors. Nor do these figures include contingent faculty members, post-docs, researchers, etc, and various trends in terms of cut faculty positions and operating budgets for the university. But, for the sake of argument, we can just look at the basic average salary for professors and assume that UH is an anomaly and has overflowing coffers. The fact remains that they paid more for one day of McConaughey than for a year of labor from an average professor. To have that be the case and then be told that there is more to life than money rings false and is tone deaf given the current state of funding for higher education.

It would not have been my choice to spend that money for Matthew McConaughey as commencement speaker, but if that is his speaking fee and one is adamant that he must speak, then that is that. I also have no problem with McConaughey charging that fee. It is his right as he is both famous and, I can only assume, busy. My problem is that he both took the money and told people money isn’t the point. It would have been more praiseworthy to me had he kept the bit about money, but also donated a significant portion of the fee back to the scholarship fund, or to the library, or the theater program, or to Nepal relief efforts. Anything that put his money where his mouth is.