Six weeks ago, we reported on the push by University of Tennessee faculty and staff for an extension of benefits to the partners of gay employees -- something that already happens at most top-tier private universities, including Vanderbilt, and at a number of the most highly ranked public universities, including the University of Florida, which is located in a state, like Tennessee, where gay marriage is illegal. At that time, Chancellors Jimmy Cheek and Larry Arrington had been promising to send a detailed letter explaining their reasoning for dismissing out of hand any action on this front in September, after the UT Faculty Senate passed a resolution in support of benefit equality.
Yesterday, the response was finally publicly released. And while it's not as dismissive as the first letter from the chancellors, it shouldn't give anyone any hope. The letter basically states that since the university has to be on the state insurance plan, and since gay marriage is totally illegal in Tennessee, there's no possible way any benefits can be extended to gay partners of UT employees, whether they are legally married in New York or simply in long-term domestic partnerships or whatever. You can read the whole thing here, but the heart of of the matter is contained the two paragraphs below:
Beyond the issues presented by these statutory and constitutional provisions, expanding the class of employees eligible for certain benefits would have significant political implications and in some cases might also have significant fiscal implications.As we have expressed to you in person, the political issues are the most challenging. As leaders of a publicly funded institution, we are responsible for acting in the best interests of the entire institution. For this reason, we ultimately concluded that the University is not in a position to pursue the Faculty Senate's resolution.
Basically, the Chancellors (and UT President Joe DiPietro) are afraid of the conservative loons who run the state legislature.
Needless to say, this isn't a response that has impressed the allies of benefit equality at UT. I spoke yesterday with Keith Kirkland, the General Manager of the Clarence Brown Theatre and the chair of the Commission for LGBT People at UT. He says he wasn't really surprised by the content of the letter and called it "quite a smokescreen," noting that there are any number of ways to get around the state prohibition on putting non-spousal employees on insurance, like offering stipends to cover the extra insurance costs. He also says that nothing in state law prohibits UT from extending non-insurance benefits like bereavement leave and tuition assistance to non-married partners.
"This letter doesn't really change the equation for us," Kirkland says. "My fear is the only thing that will bring a change here is, like with civil rights, a move at the federal level. ... UT is a really backward-looking institution."
The Commission later released a lengthy statement on the Chancellors' letter, reprinted in full below:
Today's response by Chancellor's Cheek and Arrington was not surprising in terms of its content; unfortunately, it does ignore the advice and council of numerous members of the Faculty and of numerous legal professionals--including two Attorneys General for the State of Tennessee (see below). Further, this position continues to clash with both theUniversity's VolVision Mission Statement and Chancellor Cheek's stated desire to create a campus "welcoming to all, and hostile to none."In terms of the legalities noted by the letter, there is nothing in the statues (full text available here) regarding state-approved insurance that would prohibit UT from moving forward in one of three ways:
1) Providing non-insurance based benefits such as Bereavement Leave or Tuition Assistance.2) Taking the request for domestic partner benefits to the State Insurance Commission and advocating there on behalf of our employees.3) Equalizing compensation for those with Domestic Partners though a non-insurance form of compensation (such as stipends).In addition, the text of the state law may be open to interpretations that would permit units like UTK or UTIA to secure (or facilitate/coordinate employee procurement of) health insurance policies covering the domestic partners of state employees.
The majority of the second page of the Chancellors' second letter discusses the definition of "marriage"; yet, to our knowledge, at no time has the Faculty Senate or any of the Chancellor's Commissions or advisory groups asked for the definition of marriage to be changed or to be interpreted to include domestic partnerships. As such, we can only interpret the inclusion of these state statutes and the constitutional provision on marriage as manifesting a gross misunderstanding of the issues at hand or an attempt to confuse the issues by injecting a very hotly debated topic into the discussion as a smokescreen around the issue of benefit equality on our campuses.Two of Tennessee's Attorneys General have issued opinions (http://www.tn.gov/attorneygeneral/op/2006/op/op145.pdf and http://www.tn.gov/attorneygeneral/op/2004/op/op66.pdf) that make it clear where the lines can legally be drawn under Tennessee law on issues relating to marital relationships and non-marital relationships. No one is asking that domestic partners be legally entitled to benefits as marital spouses. We merely are asking that, unmarried partners (regardless of their sexual orientation) be afforded equitable access to benefits. Fundamentally, we request a simple extension of the golden rule--we would like our households to be treated in the same way as everyone else's households by our employer.Beyond the thin legal smokescreens provided in this second response we get to the real core of the issue: "benefits would have significant political and [...] financial implications." In short, the campus administrations fear the numerous ways that Tennessee's politicians could affect our operations and finances, and they are unwilling to have UT take a leadership role on these issues due to that fear.In the end, the entirety of this discussion focuses on money and politics while ignoring the very real and personal impact the lack of these benefits has on our friends, neighbors, and colleagues--on members of our Volunteer family.Imagine helping to raise a child in your household for years as an employee of UT and having to tell them that you can't afford for them to attend UT because they aren't eligible for tuition assistance because UT doesn't extend that benefit as you aren't married to their mother...Imagine having the person you live with lose their job in the recession and find out they have a debilitating disease like cancer--how would you manage seeing the bills pile up and being unable to help provide.Imagine, just for a moment, being told you didn't qualify for bereavement leave and that your request for annual leave was denied when the person you lived with for 25 years suddenly dies...These are the issues faced by our friends and colleagues every day. Beyond the inequality, the legalities and politics, and the nearly negligible real costs for the requested programs lies the human reality of what we are doing by not offering domestic partner benefits.UT's Knoxville leaders today announced to the world that they do not have the backbone to stand up for the simple human dignity of the campuses' employees against what is a fundamental inequity. The cost of that decision will for now be borne by the men and women who make UT work. In the long run though, the cost is irreparable damage to our national and international reputation.Keith KirklandGeneral Manager--Clarence Brown TheatreChair--Commission for LGBT PeopleUniversity of Tennessee
If you want to get involved -- or you just want to hear more about it -- the next meeting of the benefit equality group is a week from tonight at 6 p.m. in the OUTreach Center. (Two students are also scheduled to meet with Chancellor Cheek tomorrow morning, but we all know that won't happen because of the impending ice storm.) You can also keep up with the goings-on at the group's blog, which has tons of information about other schools that ARE providing at least partial benefits to gay domestic patterns, like those paragons of progress over at the University of Alabama and the University of Georgia.