Faculty members are growing frustrated by what they say is a 15-year-old administrative shell game in which the biggest losers are progress, equal rights and the university’s reputation (see The Minaret’s staff editorial).
Faculty voted twice in the past four years to endorse domestic partner benefits at the university. The last time-when the faculty voted unanimously-was more than a year ago, yet faculty say they can’t get a straight answer from university president Ronald L. Vaughn, who along with UT’s chief financial officer, did not comment for this story.
Domestic partner benefits (DPB) are typically associated with giving same-sex couples the same benefits as married heterosexual couples, but they can also be applied to unmarried heterosexual couples.
Approximately 80 percent of U.S. News ‘ World Report’s top 50 colleges and universities offer DPB, and 60 percent of the top 125 colleges do, showing a correlation between ranking and likelihood of DPB, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, an influential weekly trade publication.
Meanwhile, in the corporate world, more than half of Fortune 500 companies, including some who employ UT trustees, offer DPB.
Despite the faculty’s call for DPB, the administration has been stalling for years, proponents say. Just this week, President Vaughn cancelled a Thursday meeting with faculty officials that was to discuss DPB. He offered no explanation.
Early Tuesday, The Minaret sent a list of questions to Vaughn and Robert Forschner, the Vice President for Administration and Finance. The latter did not respond, and the president’s questions were deferred to Human Resources.
The newspaper was told the president was unavailable to comment, even after pushing back its printing deadline until late Wednesday afternoon.
DPB supporters are unclear if objections are rooted in morals, finances or both, but the fact that they see Vaughn and Forschner as the biggest obstacles likely does not bode well for DPB at UT, according to University of Kansas and AAUP research.
“It matters who your president or chancellor is,” UK professor Lori Messinger told the Chronicle. “If this is something they’re not interested in, or not willing to spend political capital on, it’s just not going to happen.”
A serious concern is costs, but administration is offering no specific estimates, only that they are still looking into it.
“It is important to remember that the cost of benefits comprises more than a third of the total compensation for faculty and staff. This is a significant part of the University’s operating budget, which is tuition driven,” said Donna Popovich, executive director of human resources.
Some colleges have received regional and even national attention for their stances on DPB. Last week in Florida, for example, Palm Beach Community College made headlines for offering group insurance coverage for employee’s pets, but not for their domestic partners.
UT faculty say not offering DPB sends a signal to students and prospective employees that UT is not an open, accepting and diverse environment. It can also contradict the university’s stated goals, especially those related to offering a liberal arts education in a non-discriminatory setting.
“UT is sending a message to the community: academics, employees, perspective employees and students,” said Professor Rebecca Ingalls. “As a liberal arts university, we are supposed to recognize differences.”
Stephen Burroughs, former co-chairman of the faculty committee, agrees.
“It is absolutely prejudiced against same-sex couples, especially since same-sex marriage is not permitted in the state,” he said.
Poetry professor Martha Serpas doesn’t see DPB’s negative aspects.
“There are no real downsides to supporting domestic partner benefits,” said Serpas. “The reality is UT doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Domestic partner benefits have been around for decades. Our own health insurance (ICUBA) has no problem covering domestic partner benefits.”
Critics of domestic partner benefits worry that there are greater chances for fraud. They wonder how administrators can be sure who is a legitimate domestic partner.
“At UT, you don’t have to prove you are married. You are trusted,” Serpas said. “If I wanted to insure my partner I’d get a form, I’d fill out who my partner is and I’d promise if the domestic relationship dissolves, I will inform Human Resources in 90 days. I sign it, and I think that’s sufficient.”
Others ask for more proof.
One professor who has concerns about the plan is Joe Joseph. He said that as an auditor, he’s always concerned with deception, and he added that the wording of a 2006 DPB proposal opened the door to fraud.
“I have no problem with domestic partner benefits. I don’t care who you sleep with,” said Joseph last spring. “If the University wants to implement them, fine with me. My concern is that whatever business proposal you put forward is well thought out, clear, factual. The proposal put forward did not meet those criteria.”
Without referring to Joseph or anyone in particular, creative writing professor Audrey Colombe said she suspects that many of those who express concerns over potential fraud are actually just masking moral concerns about DPB.
Some faculty say DPB would give UT a distinct advantage over other universities, while others say it’s not a matter of getting ahead but simply keeping up.
Serpas remembers once losing a top candidate because of UT’s lack of DPB.
“She wanted tuition for her partner, so she refused the job,” Serpas said. “That was the beginning of me realizing how important and unfair this was.”
Serpas noted that the candidate had DPB at her previous university in the traditionally conservative state of Utah. Serpas added that even many conservative religious universities offer DPB.
“It improves productivity,” she said. “More and more places with good benefits keep employees.”
This is confirmed at universities like Wisconsin, which is the only Big Ten school not to offer DPB. It has had trouble hiring and retaining faculty.
The spokesman for the University of Wisconsin system told the Wisconsin newspaper, “We [have] known anecdotally professors not even giving our university a look because compensations are below the median. And the total package including the benefits are not there-especially domestic partner benefits.”
Others already at UW are even leaving. One such professor, a leading researcher who left UW for a job with DPB at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “It’s very difficult putting your heart into working at an institution when you’re not being treated the same as colleagues down the hall,” Robert Carpick told the Chronicle.