Athens, Ga. – Delta Air Lines CEO Gerald Grinstein, who guided the nation’s third-largest airline through a bankruptcy crisis into financial stability, will be the speaker for the University of Georgia’s summer commencement exercises Aug. 4.
Grinstein also will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree at the 9:30 a.m. ceremony in Stegeman Coliseum. The combined ceremony is for undergraduate and graduate students who complete degree requirements at the end of summer semester.
The number of students eligible to receive degrees will not be known until the conclusion of final exams on Aug. 3.
Grinstein became CEO of Delta-one of the largest employers in Georgia-in January of 2004 and in September of 2005 the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the wake of several years of financial setbacks. He was responsible for implementing a series of cost-cutting measures, restructuring the company’s long-term debt and fending off a hostile takeover bid, enabling Delta to emerge from bankruptcy earlier this year.
“Gerald Grinstein’s record, not only as CEO of Delta but also as a friend and supporter of higher education, is impressive to say the least,” said UGA President Michael F. Adams. “We are fortunate that our graduates will have the opportunity to hear from a leader with such extraordinary vision, fortitude and leadership ability, and we are honored to recognize his accomplishments by presenting him an honorary degree.”
The honorary degree is the highest recognition UGA can bestow after the earned doctorate. Grinstein will be the 26th recipient of the honorary Doctor of Letters degree. The university awards honorary degrees for “exemplary and broad contributions to society.” Recipients must demonstrate a “sustained record of achievements of lasting significance” in their field. The overarching criterion for the degree is excellence.
Before heading Delta, Grinstein served as non-executive chairman of Agilent Technologies; as chairman and CEO of Burlington Northern, Inc; and as president, chief operating officer and CEO of Western Airlines.
When Western Airlines merged with Delta in 1987, Grinstein joined Delta’s board of directors, serving as non-executive chairman from 1997-1999. At the board’s urging, he moved into the CEO position in 2004 to combat financial problems that began with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, worsened with rising fuel prices and increased labor costs and culminated in deep debt that led to the bankruptcy filing.
Grinstein instituted aggressive cost-saving steps including sharp payroll cuts, reduced pension and health-care benefits, outsourcing of jobs and a contract with pilots that included concessions to ease financial pressures. At the same time, he added more planes for Delta’s short-haul markets, expanded international routes and strengthened the airline’s hubs in New York and Los Angeles. He also led in turning back a hostile takeover bid by US Airways in 2006.
On April 30 of this year, Delta emerged from Chapter 11 as a stand-alone carrier and on May 3 Grinstein rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange as reissued shares of Delta stock began trading. Grinstein, who voluntarily cut his own CEO salary by 25 percent, was eligible to receive cash and stock awards worth several million dollars for his leadership but pledged instead to use the money to set up a scholarship fund and a hardship fund for Delta employees.
Prior to his career as a business executive, Grinstein, who graduated from Yale and earned a law degree at Harvard, was a partner in the Seattle law firm of Preston, Thorgrimson, Ellis & Holman. Before that, he worked in the U.S. Senate as a staff assistant to former Washington Sen. Warren Magnuson, as a member of the staff of the Senate Merchant Marine and Transportation Subcommittee, and as chief counsel for the Senate Commerce Committee.
Grinstein has been a strong supporter of the University of Washington in his native Seattle. He was on the university’s Board of Regents for six years and is now on the board of the University of Washington Foundation and is co-chair of a $2 billion capital campaign. He is also on the UW Medicine Board.
In 2000, he was an original signer of the university’s first Diversity Compact, a set of 19 initiatives to create a more inclusive environment for learning at the university.