Denying degree a major mistake

The egregious decision to deny Shahid Khan an honorary degree from the University of Illinois should be reversed.

It's understandable why members of the University of Illinois' Academic Senate tried to skirt the state's open meetings law when they met in March to scuttle plans to grant an honorary degree to a distinguished UI graduate.

But there's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip. Caught pulling a fast one, senate Chairman Matthew Wheeler pledged that the senate will not hold such secret discussions in the future. The university also released an audiotape of the meeting, the contents of which reveal senators debating the merit of awarding an honorary degree to Shahid Khan, the featured speaker at next month's graduation ceremony.

The failure to grant that degree is a stupendous display of bad judgment. It's so bad that it's breathtaking. UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said it's too late to reverse the decision "for this commencement," but officials higher up the food chain should do so as soon as possible.

Khan, a UI engineering graduate, is not just one of the UI's accomplished graduates, he's one of the most accomplished graduates of any institution of higher learning in this country.

Khan is the personification of the American success story, a living, breathing example of the fact that in this country all things are possible no matter how humble your beginning.

Khan, who came to the UI from Pakistan in the late 1960s, got an education, worked hard and played by the rules, ultimately building a hugely successful business and great wealth. To his great credit, he has shared that wealth, giving generously to community institutions, including Champaign's new library, as well as a variety of academic and athletic endeavors at the UI.

On a more substantive level, he has created economic opportunities for thousands of people across the country and the world. Flex-N-Gate, an automobile parts manufacturer, employs more than 12,000 people at its factories.

Ironically, it's Khan's job-creating activities that have him in hot water with some faculty members, specifically his local facility in Urbana.

Faculty members object to alleged violations of worker-safety rules filed against Flex-N-Gate by the Office of Safety and Health Administration. They cite an accidental release of sulfuric acid vapor that caused a worker evacuation and complaints from those who wish to unionize plant employees. The apparent intent is to portray Khan as some kind of corporate pirate not worthy of the recognition signified by an honorary degree.

That's pretty thin gruel on which to base such an insult. Skirmishes with OSHA, workplace accidents and union activities occur on a daily basis in factories across the country. It's virtually impossible for a manufacturer of substantial size to avoid them. They go hand in hand with being in business, and, under the laws governing these difficult issues, the disputes are worked out in accordance with law.

To deny Khan an honorary degree on such nebulous grounds reflects more on the judgment of the UI senators than it does on Khan's many accomplishments.

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spangwurfelt wrote on April 23, 2013 at 7:04 am

Money money money money. That's all a university should be about: money money money money.

cretis16 wrote on April 23, 2013 at 3:04 pm

This just in...the degree reserved for Mr. Khan has been awarded to Bill Ayers.

Sid Saltfork wrote on April 23, 2013 at 7:04 am

"alleged violations of worker-safety rules filed against Flex-N-Gate by the Office of Safety and Health Administration" is "pretty thin gruel"?  First, the violations were not "alleged".  Second, the "release of sulfuric acid vapor" in the workplace is not "pretty thin gruel".  Third, the denying of the honorary degree by the U of I senators does not appear to be "nebulous".

The opinion writer is concerned about the "insult" to Mr. Khan; but has no concern for those in Mr. Khan's employment. 

 

spangwurfelt wrote on April 23, 2013 at 8:04 am

Apparently it's Be Kind To Your Local Billionaire week. So what if there's the occasional cloud of sulfuric acid? It's only workers' lungs, not Khan's. What sort of crazyman would actually want his workers to have a safe work environment? That's bolshevism, man!

And, yeah, that "alleged" in the editorial is pretty craven.

rsp wrote on April 23, 2013 at 10:04 am

When I saw the report giving the reasons for denying the honorary degree my first thought was would the others who have been given them stand up to the same scrutiny? Considering that part of the motives were to avoid bad publicity and protests, this doesn't reflect well on the university. 

Sid Saltfork wrote on April 23, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Look at the four individuals who were awarded honorary degrees at the 2010 ceremony, illinois.edu/news/10/0315honorary.html   Now, check out the honorary degree criteria.  Mr. Khan has donated money to the university, and to charities.  Those are his two qualifications compared to the individuals who received honorary degrees at the 2010 ceremony.  Money talks, and something else walks.

thelowedown wrote on April 23, 2013 at 4:04 pm

What a disingenuous editorial.

1) It acts as if the committee that debated the honorary degree in secret on purpose to hide some mystical disses of Mr. Khan, but the reporting of this very newspaper by its actual reporters says otherwise, namely that the committee was under the impression it was not subject to the Open Meetings Act.

2) The editorial dismisses the complaints of safety violations against Khan's company, saying that it is just part of doing business. This is laughably untrue. If Mr. Khan's company was adequately focused on worker safety, there wouldn't be complaints of unsafe worker facilities and equipment.

mdfriedman2463 wrote on April 23, 2013 at 7:04 pm

As a person who is certified by the Attorney General's office on OMA and FOIA (Thats Open Meetings and Freedom of Information), I can firmly say that the senete committee violated the OMA.  There are very narrow rules for going into closed session.  Just because it isn't pleasant conversation does not exempt it from the rules.  And from what I know, the complaint from OSHA is that. A complaint.  Flexigate has not been fined for anything.  And therefore, it is hearsay at best.

 

ERE wrote on April 23, 2013 at 6:04 pm
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Couldn't second this one more. Phyllis Wise, were you sleeping on this one? What a COLASSAL mistake.

This ankle biting from feeble academics (and I'm a professor myself) does nothing to take away from the terrific accomplishments of Mr. Khan and his appreciated contributions to the U of I! 

jturner wrote on April 23, 2013 at 8:04 pm

Many academics don't understand business, don't like business, and think all business is exploitive of workers.  They don't like to acknowledge that  most business provide needed goods and services in the most efficient way possible (the price system drives it) and also provide employment opportunities for workers.  Otherwise we'd all still be farmers and artisans. Sure business is not perfect by any stretch, but it contributes much and there is nothing that I have seen that indicates the Flex-N-Gate is on the dark side.  I listened to the tape of the meeting and found it interesting that one person implied that Khan's various contributions were tainted because they came off the "backs of workers".  Some folks might say the the university community survives off the backs of young students and their parents paying ever higher and higher tuition, many of those students in fields of study that offer relatively modest returns on those tuition $'s.  There are competing views of every situation.

Chazman wrote on April 23, 2013 at 9:04 pm
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Ahhh so it's going to be all about the sulfuric acid cloud, is it?  I'll bet that those of you who keep beating that dead horse can't name the facility that it occurred at, much less the true cause.  So mis-information and willful ignorance of fact grant the right to drag a man's name through the mud?  All I have to say is WOW.  

First of all, to set the record straight - ANY incident at a Flex-N-Gate facility is the responsibility of that facilities' management.  Do you really think that Mr. Khan personally micro-manages every single function covering the tens of thousands in his employ?  To even insinuate that is ludicrous, and almost offensive as it suggests that the man PROMOTES unsafe practices, which could not be further from the truth.  It is incumbent upon EVERY employee to follow safe working practices, from the floor worker all of the way through management.  The mere suggestion that Mr. Khan is the root of this is not only off-base, but rather insulting.  Think about your personal workplace - is the owner/board of directors directly to blame for every splinter or paper cut that occurs?  The answer is no - so why is it different here?  

Now with that said - on to the sulphuric acid incident.  That incident was NOT the result of lack of training, or error on the part of any Flex-N-Gate employee.  That incident occurred as a result of a mistake made by an outside third party.  It is a shame that the event occurred, and my best wishes go out to those affected.  But I will not stand by and listen to the misinformed misdirect the unknowing with partial facts.  

Flex-N-Gate is a great company, with a great man at the helm, contributing to the C-U community in a major way.  Mr. Khan is the epitome of the "American dream" - considering all that he has done, all of the contributions that he has made, not only here in C-U, but internationally.  He has kept plants open during the auto crisis that otherwise would have been closed, and was able to acquire new plants that now enjoy the success of Mr. Kahn's principles.  I don't see any comments lauding those stories.  

It's real easy to place blame when you don't know the facts.  Shame on you.

 

Commonsenseman wrote on April 23, 2013 at 9:04 pm

The small minded jelaous Urbana crowd strikes again, the editorial is 100% correct, an industry and intellectual leader who is proably better known for his philanthropy in this commmunity is insulted in such a way, wow just wow....I'd tell them to forget about the speech or any future donations.

Chazman wrote on April 23, 2013 at 10:04 pm
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Thank you Commonsenseman....

jwr12 wrote on April 24, 2013 at 8:04 am

What a shameful, libellous piece of journalism, written in contravention of plain facts and seemingly with no other purpose than to pit the people of this town against one another.  For anyone who cares, here's the truth.  The Senate has always met in closed session to discuss honorary degrees; it's in the Bylaws.  While the News Gazette's recent challenge to that practice won, that's a new precedent: there was no particular conspiracy here.  By the same token, as plain reading of the agenda shows, the Senate did not meet "to scuttle" the degree: it met--as it is indeed its job to do--to award said honorary degree.  A presentation was made in favor of that motion.  In discussion, some Senators objected, raising questions about Flex N Gate's safety record.  As it happened, these questions could not be definitively answered by the motion's proponents.  Since the Senate takes academic degrees seriously -- as I suspect people would want it to do -- a vote was taken to have the committee investigate the questions, and report back.  NO DECISION was made on the merits of the case. 

In short, then, this editorial prevaricates at every turn, in so doing creating a false furor around one of this town's central institutions and 'job creators.'  It claims conspiracy, where there was none; it claims Mr. Khan was denied a degree, when he was not; it claims that faculty members met "to scuttle" the degree rather than to vote on a motion TO GRANT a degree; it implies the faculty as a whole accepted rumors, when the faculty (along with other members of the Senate) simply acknowledged the questions and asked for more information.

It seems like that only a willful determination to cast everyone involved in the harshest light can explain this egregious mistatement of the facts. 

Speaking directly to the Khan family, I feel the News Gazette owes you an apology.  They have let the town think that the Senate acted in haste, and without a full hearing of the case.  In addition, there is not a word in this editorial in praise of Mr. Khan, that was not spoken in the Senate's meeting. Indeed, the wording is so close that were it submitted in a class, it would be called plagiarism.  Such cheap praise--based on others' words and built on a structure of falsehoods and half-truths--cannot be gratifying.

 

Commonsenseman wrote on April 25, 2013 at 12:04 am

If the man didnt get the degree based on baseless accusations, then it was scuttled.  I'm sure those senators who objected started with an agenda to deny a succesful man the accolades he deserves.  Its laughable your claim that granting of honorary degrees is taken so seriously, we all know thats not true.  Its even more ironic because in this case the degreee was going to someone who actaully deserved it on an intellectual level.  Its clearly a case of sour grapes where professors who've never achieved anything substantial in their lives can't deal with the success of others.  In this time where the university needs the support of alumni more than ever, this was an extermely stupid move.

Manny L wrote on April 25, 2013 at 8:04 am

Whether or not you think that Khan should get an honorary degree what is most disturbing in this audio tape is that only 56 senators made this decision. There are over 250 senators but the tape says the vote was 22 to 34. Where were the other 200 senators? This isn't even close to a quorum. How could the chancellor and senate chair be conducting business with so few senators. I think this is probably not even binding without a quorm and the trustees could do whatever they want. I wonder what other votes the senate takes when they haven't got a quorum.