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UT Faculty Senate wants same-sex benefits; Chancellor's office rejects proposal

7:32 PM, Sep 25, 2012   |    comments
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Some UT faculty members are unhappy with a response from UT leaders about proposed same-sex marriage benefits.
That issue has come up at colleges and universities across the country, including UT, over the past few decades.

In April, the Faculty Senate approved a draft resolution in support of the school opening its benefits to same-sex couples.
Chancellors Jimmy Cheek and Larry Arrington responded to them Monday afternoon with a brief letter that rejects the proposal.

"It was a very brief dismissal of the very serious points that we had raised for discussion on campus," said Tina Shepardson, an associate professor in the Department of Religious studies."

Shepardson explained that Faculty Senate sent the resolution to university letters to open up a dialogue. Now, the body feels administrators have dismissed faculty voices.

Campus leaders have made it clear that acceptance among the campus community is a key part of UT's quest to become a Top 25 University.

"We now have what I have called 'visible diversity'. When you walk around campus, you actually see different types of people," said Wanda Costen, an associate professor in the Department of Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism Management.

Both professors are also members of the Faculty Senate, and strongly support shaping a new benefits policy that provides equal benefits for all faculty and reflects campus change.

"That includes health insurance benefits, family leave policy, and educational assistance benefits," said Shepardson.

Costen said same-sex, or domestic partner benefits, would be incentives the university can use to attract future hires among faculty.

"Diversity just adds to quality of education," she said.

But, Costen and Shepardson also believe a letter from the Office of the Chancellor to the Faculty Senate about its proposed policy actually sends a mixed message about diversity.

The letter, signed by both Cheek and Arrington, reads:

"We hope you understand that in our positions as leaders of an agency of the state of Tennessee, it is incumbent upon us to act consistently with the public policy of our state. We believe that the three specific proposals for domestic partner benefit equality outlined in the operative clauses of the resolution are inconsistent with the public policy of our state expressed in constitutional and statutory provisions."

"I am in no way advocating not following the law of the great state of Tennessee. I am much more concerned in how we, as an institution of higher learning, can establish an inclusive policy on a campus that desires to be welcoming to all and hostile to none," said Costen.

Three other SEC campuses already offer domestic partner, or same-sex, benefits to faculty. The University of Kentucky and The University of Florida, both public schools, have had policies in place for several years. Vanderbilt University, a private school located in Nashville, put its policy in place in 1999. Those benefit offerings were put in place despite Kentucky, Florida, and Tennessee state laws on the books that define marriage as between a man and a woman.

The University of Kentucky is self-insured; employee domestic partner benefits are administered by the school rather than the state.

In Florida and Tennessee, the state administers benefits to university employees. The University of Florida funds, and administers, its benefits program for same-sex couples with money not from the state.

To qualify for same-sex benefits at Vanderbilt University, faculty and their partners must meet the following criteria: be of the same sex, live together for a minimum of six months, have no other spouse, demonstrate that they share financial responsibilities, live in the same residence for which they share financial responsibility, and not be related by blood. However, Vanderbilt does not require proof of any of this up-front. Its human resource office conducts random, dependent audits on claims by faculty that are made throughout the year. No faculty member is required to provide a marriage certificate.

Costen and Shepardson said those other policies are evidence that UT can eventually work out a plan too.

"I have to believe that. I can't say it's gonna be easy. It's gonna be a lot of work," said Costen.

The Faculty Senate simply wants the chance to do like it teaches its students and solve a complicated issue. It is expected to discuss its next steps with the benefits issue next month at its regular meeting.

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