Honorary degree discussion may have broken state law

URBANA — A closed-door meeting among faculty leaders earlier this week to debate a possible honorary degree for a billionaire alumnus may have violated the state's Open Meetings Act.

Members of the Academic Senate — a body of faculty, students and a handful of academic professionals responsible for educational policy matters on campus — met Monday afternoon to discuss honorary degrees.

After its regular public meeting, the group adjourned to meet in closed session to discuss the topic of honorary degrees, but leaders did not cite a specific exemption listed in the state statute, as required by the law and the senate's own bylaws. The senate also did not take a roll call as required. Discussion of honorary degrees is not listed in the statute as one of the exemptions when public bodies can meet in closed session.

During Monday's closed meeting, senators debated a recommendation to award an honorary doctorate degree to 1971 UI engineering graduate Shahid Khan, The News-Gazette has learned.

Khan has been chosen to deliver the 2013 commencement address on campus in May. A major donor to the university and prominent alumnus with a seat on the UI Foundation's board of directors and board of visitors in the College of Engineering, Khan is the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Flex-N-Gate, an Urbana-based auto parts manufacturer. Flex-N-Gate has more than 12,450 employees at dozens of factories around the world. This week Forbes magazine estimated Khan's net worth at $2.9 billion.

His selection as commencement speaker and potential recipient of an honorary doctorate degree has not been without some controversy. Khan's company has been criticized for alleged anti-union activities and violating Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards. Last month, the United Auto Workers organized several rallies outside non-union Flex-N-Gate factories, including the Guardian West plant in Urbana.

Faculty and administrators said the meeting to discuss honorary degrees was private.

"Discussing honorary degrees in closed session has been a long-standing practice of the senate and it is allowed in our bylaws," said Matthew Wheeler, animal sciences professor and chair of the senate, in a written statement to The News-Gazette.

However, since questions were raised by The News-Gazette, Wheeler said, he has been consulting with legal counsel.

"And if these discussions are not exempt from the Open Meetings Act, we will immediately change our procedure," he said.

When determining whether a subsidiary body of a public body is subject to the Open Meetings Act or similar statute, the Freedom of Information Act, one should examine control — to what extent is the subsidiary body subject to control by the public body, said Esther Seitz, attorney with the law offices of Don Craven in Springfield, which handles legal counsel for the Illinois Press Association. In other words, to what extent do UI officials have control over those who are running the senate, she said.

The Academic Senate is "pretty clearly a public body," Seitz said. It would be a different situation if the university senate had, for example, a farmer or banker with no connections to the university serving on it, she said.

"These are faculty. They're an extension of the university," she said. Academics might have their own opinions of whether they see themselves as independent of the university, but the university is able to control them simply because they're on their payroll, Seitz said.

Last year, the senate itself revised its bylaws in recognition of the need to comply with the Illinois Open Meetings Act. Referring to a decision in the case of the Illinois State University Board of Regents vs. Reynard, by the Fourth Appellate District Court (which concluded an athletic council of ISU's Academic Senate was subject to FOIA and OMA) "it appears that the University of Illinois Academic Senate, including its committees and subcommittees, may be 'public bodies' within the meaning of the OMA," stated a senate agenda item last year.

According to university statutes, each campus senate recommends candidates for honorary degrees to the president and UI Board of Trustees.

The current status of the honorary degree considered for Khan is unclear. Faculty and administrators have declined to talk publicly about the matter.

Voting or the taking of final action at any closed meeting is prohibited by the statute. After adjourning the closed session on Monday, the Academic Senate reconvened in open session only to adjourn promptly without taking any action in public.

Trustees, who are meeting Thursday in Urbana, were slated to vote on an honorary degree for an unnamed person, but that agenda item was pulled two days before the meeting, a day after the senate met in closed session.

This is not the first time there has been some controversy surrounding a potential honorary degree recipient. In 2007, faculty and administrators recommended an honorary degree for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. But that was recommendation was pulled last minute from the board agenda when a trustee objected to it. Then-UI President B. Joseph White said a proposal is pulled when there is no consensus from the board on the item.

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Sid Saltfork wrote on March 07, 2013 at 9:03 am

How much does an honorary degree cost?

ronaldo wrote on March 07, 2013 at 9:03 am

Oh dear, the floodgates have opened.  Let the hating begin....

vcponsardin wrote on March 07, 2013 at 10:03 am
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As the U of I moves ever faster toward becoming the "MIT of the Midwest," why not buck this silly trend and give an honorary doctorate to 1980 U of I theatre studies major Ang Lee, who just won his second Academy Award?  Why not?  Because Lee wasn't an engineering major and because Lee isn't worth as much as Khan.

Bulldogmojo wrote on March 07, 2013 at 11:03 am

Exactly! Darwin forbid someone chose theater or an LAS degree over engineering and contributed to a more well rounded society.

"We have to have a passion for learning. We have to learn about who we are and how we came to be the way we are, why we are the way we are. We need to absorb the great words and the literature of our language. We are living in a world where we have to know the languages of other people. Yet, you can graduate today having had no history at all and no foreign language. Who are we kidding? I've read about what the leaders of a great variety of fields majored in. It's history or English or botany. It's everything. The youngster benefits who is guided on the idea that you major in the subject you really love or you major in the subject by which you learn to express yourself in writing or on your feet. If you don't you're doing yourself a disservice."

~ David McCullough