CHAMPAIGN — Billionaire alumnus Shahid Khan will deliver the commencement address at the University of Illinois next month, but he will not be awarded an honorary degree, at least not this year.
Several faculty members questioned giving Khan, who received a bachelor's degree in engineering from the university in 1971, an honorary doctorate because of unresolved concerns about alleged safety violations and anti-union activity at his Urbana-based company Flex-N-Gate, according to a closed-door debate among faculty and students last month.
Nominations for honorary degrees typically are handled by a campus committee, which forwards names to the full Academic Senate, a quasi-legislative body of faculty and students. If approved by the senate, the nominations then go to the UI Board of Trustees. An effort to bestow an honorary doctorate to Khan at next month's commencement stalled last month when the senate sent the recommendation back to committee.
In March, the senate adjourned into closed session to discuss the recommendation, likely violating the Illinois Open Meetings Act. Discussion of honorary degrees is not listed in the state law as an allowed topic for executive session. In response to inquiries by The News-Gazette, UI Professor and senate Chair Matthew Wheeler said the senate would no longer hold such discussions behind closed doors.
An audio file of that tape was released this week to The News-Gazette, shedding some light on the nature of the group's questions. Here is the audio file:
One opponent, UI emeritus library Professor Al Kagan, brought up the pending Flex-N-Gate cases before the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration and recent United Auto Workers rallies outside Flex-N-Gate calling for better pay and working conditions for factory workers.
"I don't think these are frivolous accusations. ... We're opening ourselves up for some trouble if we go ahead. I hope we don't do it," Kagan said at the meeting, adding that he thought there may be pickets outside the Assembly Hall — the site of the UI's commencement ceremonies — if they agreed to give Khan an honorary degree.
This week Professor Nicholas Burbules did not rule out the possibility that the honorary-degree recommendation be reintroduced sometime in the future.
"My sense is most people wanted to know what the facts were. Clearly there was incomplete, inconsistent information" at the time of the discussion, he said. Many faculty, for example, wanted to know more information about the status of the cases pending before OSHA. Once those cases are resolved, the senate could consider the recommendation again.
In January, Flex-N-Gate's Guardian West plant in Urbana was cited by OSHA for six serious safety violations in response to a visit to the plant in July 2012. That month some workers were taken to the hospital following an accidental release of sulfuric acid vapor. The company also has six other violations pending from a May 2012 visit by OSHA.
Flex-N-Gate has contested the violations and it's likely the cases will be decided by an administrative law judge in approximately 45 to 60 days, according to OSHA spokesman Scott Allen.
In his presentation to the faculty, Andreas Cangellaris, honorary degrees committee chair and head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said the College of Engineering recommended the honorary degree for Khan after learning he was to speak at this spring's commencement exercises. Typically, the committee considers honorary degrees the academic year prior to the awarding of the degree. Cangellaris cited Khan's work ethic, the company's reputation as a product innovator and "best-in-class manufacturer" and his contributions over the years to the university and community.
"The committee felt the impact Shahid Khan has had as an alumnus of this campus is something that would be exemplary for many others to follow," Cangellaris said at the meeting.
Khan, the president of Urbana-based Flex-N-Gate and National Football League team the Jacksonville Jaguars, is a member of the UI Foundation's board of directors and board of visitors in the College of Engineering. He has donated to the UI, the Champaign Public Library and other organizations, and was inducted into the Lincoln Academy of Illinois. Flex-N-Gate, an auto-parts manufacturer, has more than 12,450 employees at dozens of factories around the world.
Campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said honorary degrees are sometimes conferred on commencement speakers, but one is not incumbent upon the other.
"When we invited Mr. Khan to be our commencement speaker, we very much wanted to recognize his life achievements and his commitment to the University of Illinois by awarding him an honorary degree," she said.
"The nine faculty senators who spoke out at this meeting are entitled to their opinion, but they do not speak for the university or even for the entire faculty senate. The university selected Mr. Khan as the commencement speaker because he represents qualities that we feel exemplify what it means to be a member of the Illinois family," she said.
Khan, a Pakistani native, came to the United States "with almost nothing," she said. "But he worked hard, took a job washing dishes for $1.20 an hour, and applied the education and experiences gained as a student at the U of I to build one of the nation's most successful auto parts manufacturers."
The honorary degrees committee has not met since the March meeting, and it's not clear at this point what its members will do.
"The committee will consider the feedback received from the faculty senate at one of its next meetings," Cangellaris said.