As an alumna and former employee of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, I read Chancellor Cheek's recent letter to the Faculty Senate on the subject of domestic partner benefits with great interest. The Chancellor stated that the Senate's proposal to offer domestic partner benefits to staff and faculty is "inconsistent with the public policy of our state expressed in constitutional and statutory provisions." Since he offered no more specific citations, I assume he is referring to the "marriage amendment" to the Tennessee constitution, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman.
However, domestic partner benefits, as the name implies, have nothing to do with marriage. The benefits are offered to unmarried partners. Offering these benefits would not infringe on state law, it would instead prove the university's stated commitment to diversity, equality, and civility. We need look only as far as Georgia and Florida to see large public peer universities in states with similar marriage amendments that have nonetheless found ways to offer domestic partner benefits to their staff and faculty.
I can honestly say I love the University of Tennessee. I enjoyed my time there and I know we are lucky to have such a fine institution here in East Tennessee. But every time I receive a letter from the Alumni Association encouraging me to support the university financially, something stops me. I am committed to UTK, but I am even more committed to equality. I cannot in good conscience support an institution that does not support my gay and lesbian friends, or me as a bisexual woman. Until UTK's commitment to diversity and equality becomes more than just words, my support of the university will be tempered by my disappointment at its faults.