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Commencement speaker entangled in legal issues at General Motors

By Kristen Fedor, Daily Staff Reporter
Published May 1, 2014

This story has been updated to reflect a student protest of Barra in connection with GM's legal issues

General Motors CEO Mary Barra, the scheduled speaker for this year’s spring commencement, will deliver her address Saturday at Michigan Stadium amidst heavy controversy surrounding the recent recalls of millions of GM vehicles and subsequent federal investigation.

Since February, GM has recalled 2.6 million automobiles due to a flaw in ignition switches that causes them to spontaneously shut off, resulting in stalling and failure of airbags to deploy. The defective switches have been linked to at least 13 deaths and 32 crashes, according to media reports.

Engineers at GM have allegedly known of the issue since 2001, but the recall only began this February. Car companies are required to notify the government of major safety issues within five days, but critics allege it took GM over a decade to do so.

As well, in 2005, GM engineers proposed an improved ignition switch design that was rejected because of business costs. The new part would have cost GM approximately 57 cents per piece.

Reasons for the delay in the recall are still unclear. Last week, the federal government launched a formal investigation of the matter, and the Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission are currently looking into the history of the issue. One of the key objectives the SEC is focusing on is whether or not GM purposely hid the issues from investors.

The controversy has extended to campus as well—on Thursday, two University student organizations, the Graduate Employees Organization and the Student Union, announced a resolution asking the University to reconsider General Motors CEO Mary Barra as Saturday’s spring commencement speaker.

The two groups said Barra wasn’t an appropriate speaker because of the recall scandal, as well as the alleged illegal firing of injured workers at a GM plant in Colombia. Both of these incidences, they said, demonstrated that Barra is not a good representation of the University’s values, ethical business practices, or female empowerment.

“Barra and her company have done enormous harm to people and the environment,” the resolution read. “Although Barra is now being depicted as some sort of feminist, it is in fact women who have been the most negatively affected by her and her company.”

Barra has been the CEO of GM since January. She is the first female CEO of a major automaker, and has spent much of her career at GM, including serving as senior vice president of global product development, plant manager at Detroit Hamtramck Assembly, vice president of global manufacturing engineering and vice president of global human resources.

This April, she testified in front of Congress in a series of hearings in regard to the federal investigation, and repeatedly apologized for the delay of the recalls. She said the “new GM” is prioritizing safety over costs, as opposed to the actions of the “old GM.” Barra also said she did not know about the defective ignition switches until after she assumed her current CEO position.

Additionally, Barra has met with family members of victims of the crashes and apologized. In several statements, she's said she is committed to fixing this problem.

Barra’s “new GM” is still in recovery from its bankruptcy and subsequent $50 million government bailout in 2009. Last week, GM filed with the U.S. bankruptcy court requesting a ban on lawsuits with regard to the “old GM,” which includes suits pertaining to the ignition switches.

Since the initial February recall, a total of over 6 million GM vehicles have been recalled for a range of additional safety issues. These include the March recall of 1.3 million automobiles for power steering complications. In total, the recalls are expected to cost GM around $750 million.


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