Selection of Shahid Khan as commencement speaker not a good reflection of employee relations

Seniors graduating in May must be feeling sorely disappointed. The Alma Mater will not be in attendance to witness the Class of 2013 receive their diplomas. Instead, the statue will be undergoing up to $360,000 worth of repairs to corrosion and inner structural damage. The project will be paid for by the Chancellor’s Fund, which is provided by private gifts from alumni and others.

The staggering cost is almost four-times the original estimate for the repairs. But along with yesterday’s announcement that the commencement ceremony will feature Shahid Khan — the billionaire owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars football team as well as the Urbana-based Flex-N-Gate company — the coming graduation ceremony is shaping up to be a reflection of the University’s difficulties in managing its monetary priorities as well as its relationship with its employees. 

The University is no stranger to conflicts with labor unions. Yesterday, The Daily Illini reported that the Service Employees International Union, which represents about 800 University food service and building service workers, still intends to strike if a new contract cannot be negotiated by March 11.

Union conflicts and strikes have become an embarrassing tradition at this University. The Graduate Employees’ Organization went on strike in November 2009 over tuition waivers, and they nearly went on strike again at the end of last semester before ratifying a new contract in December. Every year seems to bring a new crisis, and the University has done just enough to keep the ball rolling, but not enough to completely resolve the underlying issues. 

Khan is also an embattled figure when it comes to employee treatment and his relationships with unions. Flex-N-Gate, which manufactures auto parts, made Khan a billionaire, but his Urbana plant was hit with over $40,000 in fines by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Last month, Urbana Flex-N-Gate employees rallied in support of joining the United Auto Workers union. Strikes have also occurred in Flex-N-Gate plants across the country on similar issues of hostility to unions and employee treatment.

There are many aspects of Shahid Khan that make him an admirable and fitting commencement speaker: Born in Pakistan, emigrated to the United States at 16 and graduated from the University in 1971 with a degree in engineering. He has a net worth of $2.9 billion, according to Forbes. His story is quintessentially American, and his life is an example of the power of combining opportunity and education. 

But when Chancellor Phyllis Wise invites Khan to the podium to speak before the graduating Class of 2013, it will be a gesture of how at ease the University is with the status quo of kick-the-can negotiations in its treatment of employees and student teachers. 

Perhaps it is fitting that the Alma Mater, a symbol of tradition and dignity for everyone touched by this University, will not witness this commencement.