URBANA — A governance group at the University of Illinois that for decades has discussed the awarding of honorary degrees behind closed doors will no longer hold those meetings in private.
The news comes a few days after The News-Gazette raised questions about the group's practice, which does not comply with the Illinois Open Meetings Act. The state law outlines specific reasons for when public bodies can meet in closed session; discussion of honorary degrees is not among them.
"We consulted with the (UI) Office of University Counsel, which confirmed that The News-Gazette's interpretation of the Act is consistent with case law on the subject and legal counsel's advice regarding closed meetings. Accordingly, the Senate will no longer hold a closed meeting to discuss the topic of honorary degrees," senate Chairman and UI Professor Matt Wheeler announced on Monday.
The Academic Senate, a quasi-legislative body of 200 faculty, 50 students and eight academic professionals from the Urbana campus, met last Monday in a closed session to discuss a possible honorary doctorate degree for billionaire alumnus Shahid Khan, The News-Gazette reported.
When adjourning into closed session, 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.
Wheeler said no vote was taken during the closed session that day. Senators did send back to committee the recommendation that Khan, who received his bachelor's degree in engineering from the UI in 1971, be awarded an honorary doctorate.
On Monday, Wheeler said he did not know how the campus' process of bestowing honorary degrees will be affected by the change. In the past, the process involved someone submitting a person's name for consideration to the honorary degrees committee, the committee submitting a recommendation to the senate, and the senate, after discussing the topic in closed session, forwarding a name to the UI Board of Trustees.
A senate statutes committee now will be tasked with revising its bylaws to address honorary degree discussion.
"The students think this is appropriate and support the bylaws change," said Brock Gebhardt, student body president. "I understand the intent behind the custom (of discussing honorary degrees in private) due to the sensitive nature of the topic," he added.
Urbana Chancellor Phyllis Wise said an honorary degrees is one of the main ways that universities honor and recognize individuals who have made "unusually significant contributions to the world in which all of us live."
"It is particularly gratifying when one of those individuals is among our very own graduates, and even more gratifying when the individual attributes some of his life achievements to the education he received here," she said.
Two honorary degree recipients who already have been approved by the senate and UI trustees for the campus's 2013 commencement ceremonies are Professors James Thomson and Fred Volkmar. Thomson, a UI graduate, is a professor and director of regenerative biology at the University of Wisconsin. He is the biomedical researcher who led the group that reported in 1995 the first isolation of embryonic stem cell lines from a non-human primate. Volkmar, also a UI grad, is director of the Yale Child Study Center and professor of child psychiatry, pediatrics and psychology at Yale. He is a neurobiologist who researches treatment of autism and related disorders.
Khan, the president of Urbana-based Flex-N-Gate and owner of the National Football League team the Jacksonville Jaguars, has been chosen to deliver the 2013 commencement address on May 12.
Wise called Khan, a Pakistan native who came to study at the UI in 1967, "a prime example of the promise we were charged to deliver from the time of our 1867 founding. We consider it our mission to be a university where all would have the chance to learn and to become leaders in their communities, in the state, across the nation and around the world.
"Shahid came to Illinois with the desire to work hard and to take advantage of the opportunities of a great institution. And look where it has taken him. He is a member of our Illinois family and one we are proud to claim him as one of our graduates."