Encourage equal benefits at UT

Michael Redding

Other than a recent scuffle over whether candidates for Student Government actually support them, the subject of domestic partner benefits has all but been dropped from campus-wide dialogue. Yet it is still an issue: There are employees and students of the University who are actively discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. For those unfamiliar with the issue, a true domestic partner benefits policy would grant all employees the same right to competitive insurance benefits, regardless of the gender of their partner.

Most of the arguments I have heard in favor of instituting domestic partner benefits focus on the equality issue. Should all University employees be given the same rights, regardless of their sexual orientation? The answer: of course, if one is to read the University’s own non-discrimination policy. The equality argument is a fair one; tenured faculty have actually left the University over the policy and the University has been unable to recruit outstanding faculty and graduate students because they cannot get their partners’ health insurance coverage. It even affects current graduate students; in the Graduate School’s climate study, released in fall 2011, 43 percent of all LGBT graduate students reported being discriminated against, with a large number of the comments describing the inequity of partner benefits.

So what can we do about the situation? System policy dictates that benefits can only be granted to legally married couples, and the state of Texas currently does not recognize marriage as anything other than between one man and one woman. However, many private institutions in the state currently offer domestic partner benefits, including Baylor College of Medicine, Rice University, Southern Methodist University and Trinity University. If they can do it, why can’t we?

The simple answer is politics. Faculty and staff salaries are paid for from state funds, and the Legislature has signaled its opposition against gay rights and equality issues. Since the “equality” avenue seems closed for the foreseeable future — though a recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll shows that 60 percent of Texas residents are in favor of some form of recognition of LGBT couples’ rights — a more fruitful endeavor for supporters of domestic partner benefits would be the recruitment andretention angle.

The Commission of 125, a group of citizens dedicated to promoting UT, recommended that UT “should recruit the very best graduate students from Texas, the nation and the world.” The Graduate School’s climate study expanded on this directive, suggesting numerous ways in which outstanding graduate students could be recruited to the University, including enacting domestic partner benefits.

However, President William Powers Jr. himself admitted in the November Faculty Council meeting that competitor institutions offer “more robust” recruitment packages to prospective faculty and graduate students than the University can offer. In 2008, UT’s own Pride and Equity Faculty and Staff Association compiled numerous recruitment failures because of the University’s lack of domestic partner benefits.

This problem has only compounded since then. Recently, Washington and Maryland became the seventh and eighth states to pass laws recognizing same-sex marriages, assuming various court challenges and referenda don’t overturn said laws. As more states grant equal rights to same-sex couples, the state of Texas and the University become increasingly isolated.

Eventually, the University will face a recruitment crisis when superb faculty and graduate students will continue to reject the offers from friendlier states with more equitable laws. To truly be a University of the first-class, we need all the talent we can get. Enacting a domestic partner benefits policy for the UT System is just one small piece of the puzzle to effectively recruit first-class faculty and graduate students.

Redding is president-elect of the Graduate Student Assembly and a Texas Student Media contract employee.