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UGA Beats UT (When It Comes to Same-Sex Benefits)

The University of Tennessee may not hit the field in Athens until 3:30 p.m. tomorrow, but it has already lost to the University of Goergia -- at least when it comes to treating all its employees fairly. 

Yesterday UGA became the latest in a number of schools to pass full domestic partner benefits for its staff and faculty. The benefits, which would mean same-sex couples (and unmarried straight couples in domestic partnerships) could have health insurance and all that jazz, still have to be approved by the university's president, Michael Adams, but since he's retiring in May and looking towards his legacy, it seems quite possible that the measure will finally become reality.

Meanwhile, at UT, a similar proposal was shot down earlier this week without so much as a conversation. And boy, are UT employees not exactly happy. They've sent another letter to the chancellors pointing out how far we are behind.

In light of yesterday's move by the University of Georgia to provide domestic partner benefits and the Chancellors' response to the Faculty Senate Resolution about similar benefits, the Chancellor's Commission for LGBT People has issued the following open letter to Chancellors Jimmy Cheek and Larry Arrington.  We encourage everyone to read and share this message.

September 28, 2012

Chancellor Cheek and Arrington,
This weekend we will play football against the University of Georgia--one of our greatest football rivals.  In light of your response to the Faculty Senate's Resolution four days ago, it strikes us as profound that yesterday UGA took a massive step towards providing the exact benefits that you have now publicly refused to even discuss because you "believe" them to be "inconsistent with the public policy of our state expressed in constitutional and statutory provisions."

Our own non-discrimination clauses state that we will not discriminate based on sexual orientation, and you yourself have repeatedly stated--including in your letter earlier this week--that "diversity is an important value at UT" and that the campus should be "welcoming to all and hostile to none."  Unfortunately, we are unable to reconcile that message with what appears to be a flat refusal  to consider, evaluate, or discuss benefit equality.  As this story has spread through media outlets nationally and globally, the message broadcast is that the university's administration has intentionally chosen to not support equality despite all assertions to the contrary.  We say we are a university of "Big Ideas," and yet this response clearly indicates that, in stark contrast to our peer institutions, the idea of domestic partner benefits is just too big for us.

The Faculty Senate in their resolution simply requested that you as Chancellors provide a "plan for progress on benefit equality".  This was a perfect opportunity to follow the steps of numerous other institutions and begin a study on the issue.  It was an opportunity to start an intellectual dialog to discuss the legal, financial, and human impact. It was an avenue to begin the process of change and to tangibly demonstrate that diversity and equality are more than just values we tout.

This issue has the full support of nearly every major advisory group within the University (Graduate Student Senate, Faculty Senate, Student Government Association, Exempt Staff Council, and all three Commissions). As such, you can be assured that Monday's response to the Senate was very closely watched.  Every one of those advisory groups and every LGBT and Ally employee of this University has now been clearly told that we should have no hope for progress under the current Administration.

With Georgia added, more than 85% of our top 25 peer and aspirational public universities now offer domestic partner benefits.  Further, every Ivy League school and more than 10,000 businesses across the nation have stepped up.  We cannot continue to expect to compete if we are not going to match our competitors.  Monday's message to the Faculty Senate undermines any hope for the future and signals to all minorities that UT is not actively serious in its commitment to diversity and equality.

As we move into this weekend┬╣s game, it will be much more difficult for the LGBT community, our allies, and everyone else who stands to benefit from even the possibility of change to wear orange knowing that if we only wore red we would be on a path to equality.  UGA is yet another example of a large state university faced with similarly restrictive laws recognizing that providing these benefits is not only right but also beneficial as they compete to recruit and grow.

In sending this letter, it is the hope of the Commission that we might find a way to publicly reopen the dialog with the Administration on how UT might move forward.  We look forward to your response.

Keith Kirkland
Chair, Commission for LGBT People
University of Tennessee

Will this letter have any effect? It's unlikely. But if complaints and protests continue, eventually things will change. Right? Isn't that how it works? Even in states like Tennessee?

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