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National Politics

UNT speaker series namesake digs in to back Trump Jr.’s $100,000 invite

September 06, 2017 12:55 PM

Donald Trump Jr. will take home $100,000 for a 30-minute speech next month as part of a University of North Texas speaker series. Amid some discontent over a Trump Jr. visit in UNT’s name, the series namesake defended the pick on pillars of scholarship fundraising and free speech.

“I am disappointed that we are trying to help students with our lecture series and others criticize our motives and our actions,” said Ernie Kuehne, a Dallas attorney, oil executive and philanthropist who proudly declares himself a political independent.

“We’re going to keep our commitment to him, we’re going to exercise our First Amendment rights and we’re going to continue to support academic excellence and National Merit Scholars with the speaker series.”

The UNT Kuehne Speaker Series was established in 2013 and raises money for student scholarships. Kuehne, a 1966 UNT graduate, said it has generated around $2 million for scholarships since its inception.

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This week, the series awarded the first of its scholarships, which went to five National Merit Scholars.

Ernie Kuehne

“At the end of day, the series is about giving UNT exposure in the Metroplex and supporting academic excellence,” Kuehne said.

Trump Jr.’s fee, about twice as much as he has received for previous speaking engagements, is nonrefundable unless he cancels. It is the largest fee the series has ever paid a speaker.

UNT graduate and Republican donor Brint Ryan, chairman and CEO of Ryan LLC, a tax services firm headquartered in Dallas, said he agreed to double his $50,000 presenting sponsorship for this year’s series to help meet Trump Jr.’s asking price. AT&T Stadium is the scheduled venue with tables to be positioned on one half of the Dallas Cowboys’ home turf.

Tickets are being sold only as tables with sponsorship levels ranging from $5,000 to $100,000.

“We want to bring in as many sponsors to our tables as possible to help us with our National Merit Scholarship program,” Ryan said. “We do have high expectations that this will be our highest-grossing event ever.”

The series delivers one speaker per semester. Fees have ranged between $29,500 and $50,000. Fox Business Network anchor Melissa Francis will receive $40,000, Kuehne said, for her scheduled appearance in March 2018.

“Can’t predict the future”

Had his fee contractually been refundable, talks might have ensued about whether to stick with Trump Jr. as he became ensnared in the Russia scandal surrounding his father, President Donald Trump.

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Canceling said Kuehne, a self-identifying “fiscal conservative and social liberal,” the son of a loyal Democratic precinct chairman who left segregated Mart, just east of Waco, in 1962 for integrated UNT on a track scholarship, is not an option.

Trump Jr.’s situation could change dramatically by the time he arrives in North Texas, one month after his father was slated to headline a fundraiser in Dallas on Sept. 27. The president has canceled the visit, citing the need for the state to focus on hurricane relief efforts.

Trump Jr., according to The Washington Post, will testify Thursday in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In July, The New York Times reported Trump Jr. met with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer during the presidential campaign after being promised compromising information on Hillary Clinton. He is expected to meet with the Senate Intelligence Committee at some point.

“We pick our speakers months in advance. We can’t predict the future,” Kuehne said.

“The price we’re paying is we’re taking a little bashing, taking a lot of bashing, for supporting college scholarships,” Kuehne continued. “I respect others’ right to criticize what we do or disagree with our choice of speakers. That’s their First Amendment right.”

The selection of the 39-year-old Trump Jr. has drawn considerable criticism from some alumni, faculty and a student body that numbers nearly 38,000. UNT’s student newspaper, the North Texas Daily, penned an editorial calling the invitation “tone deaf” and stated President Trump and his eldest son do not “represent the inclusive and diverse community of the University of North Texas.”

The UNT administration is publicly backing the speaker series.

“As a public university that supports the expression of differing points of view as part of the learning process, UNT welcomes speakers who represent all viewpoints, including conservative, liberal and progressive political ideology as well as all positions in between,” UNT spokeswoman Kelley Reese said in response to a request for comment from university president Neal Smatresk.

“The speakers for the series are selected through a collaborative discussion among the series benefactor, the series donors and UNT staff,” Reese said.

UNT Student Government Association President Barrett Cole, a senior integrative studies major from Dallas, said she’s heard complaints and cheers about Trump’s appearance. Noting student fees are not used to pay speakers in this series, Cole said students often invite guests from all spectrums to “challenge their beliefs and have their beliefs reaffirmed.”

Good or bad decision?

According to the contract obtained last week by the Star-Telegram, Trump Jr. agreed in July to give a 30-minute speech followed by a 30-minute question-and-answer session with a moderator. Trump Jr. will also attend a two-hour dinner with eight guests Oct. 23, then a two-hour VIP breakfast and an approximately 70-minute VIP reception before his speech.

In addition to the $100,000 fee, Trump Jr. is allotted up to $5,000 for travel expenses.

The UNT Kuehne Speaker Series typically comes and goes with little fanfare or media attention. The series has tended to invite speakers leaning politically right of center, but who, Kuehne said, can also be unexpectedly unpredictable in front of an audience.

Fox Business correspondent Charles Gasparino ($29,500 fee, according to UNT records) in May, Kuehne said, caught the crowd off-guard when he called President Trump “crazy.” Other speakers have included Fox News’ Kimberly Guilfoyle ($30,000), billionaire oil investor T. Boone Pickens (no fee) and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani ($35,500), said by Ryan to be the series’ top-grosser.

Kuehne duly noted past appearances by more left-of-center speakers such as Robert Kaplan ($30,000), an author and geopolitical analyst, and Richard W. Fisher ($50,000), the president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas from 2005 until 2015 and who ran for the Senate as a Democrat.

Kuehne said the series is “exploring” bringing in Chelsea Clinton, while noting that committee discussions led to passing on invitations to Ivanka Trump and former cable news giant Bill O’Reilly before his firing at Fox News.

Kuehne said the push to invite Trump Jr. gained steam after a politically heavy speech he made in March as the keynote speaker at the Dallas County Republican Party’s Reagan Day Dinner.

“We brought Donald Trump Jr. in because we thought he was the right speaker at the right time for us,” Kuehne said. “We’ll find out if this was a good or bad decision on Oct. 24.”

Jeff Caplan is a projects and enterprise reporter for the Star-Telegram. Reach him at 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan.