Last week, the University of Georgia's often-loathed and soon-to-be-retired President Michael Adams announced what employees of the state university had been waiting to hear for years—gay and unmarried straight faculty and staff in domestic partnerships would be able to put their partners on their insurance, likely by next summer.
If Georgia can do it, some University of Tennessee employees think, there's no reason it can't happen here.
The UT Faculty Senate passed a resolution in April supporting benefit equality for all partnered employees of the university, whether married, or unmarried and in domestic partnerships. Since the state of Tennessee does not recognize gay marriage, even gay faculty who get legally married in a state like New York and then move to Knoxville to teach at UT are not considered married by the university. And if they aren't married, they can't get health insurance, life insurance, family medical leave, tuition assistance, or any of the other many benefits heterosexual married couples take for granted at the university.
But just because the Faculty Senate supports something doesn't mean the administration does, and in September, Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and Institute of Agriculture Chancellor Larry Arrington issued a brief, dismissive letter saying that they "believe" that benefits for domestic partners are "inconsistent with the public policy of our state expressed in constitutional and statutory provisions."
Still, the staff pushing for the change aren't giving up.
"I think the administration's willingness to kowtow to the political climate in the state … is truly shameful," Thomas Walker said at a meeting about benefit equality last Thursday, which about 40 people attended.
Walker is an information specialist at UT and one of the leaders of the coalition fighting for the benefits. He says he feels lucky his partner currently has his own health insurance, but "as a gay employee, I feel affected by it."
And it's not just the LGBT faculty and staff who are supporting the initiative. Sarah Eldridge, a German professor, was at the meeting.
"I'm straight, unmarried, have no kids, and this is something that's important to me," Eldridge said.
A number of students, both straight and not, also spoke out. "Students are affected seeing how the staff is treated, and we see the discrimination, and it hurts us as well," said Hannah, a freshman.
But besides the discriminatory aspects, and besides the practical considerations, proponents of domestic partnership benefits have one really big argument in their favor—if UT ever wants to be a "top 25" research university, they have some catching up to do. A summary of the top 25 public universities in the country shows only four—the University of Virginia, William and Mary, Texas A&M, and Clemson University—provide the same level or less of domestic partner benefits as UT does. (The only partner benefits UT currently offers are library privileges and recreation facility memberships.) The University of Texas doesn't provide insurance but does offer couples counseling and family medical leave, and Georgia offers financial discounts and housing to same-sex couples.
It's no surprise that the California universities are some of the most progressive, but the University of Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue, Maryland, Rutgers, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Penn State, Pittsburgh, and the University of Illinois all offer domestic partners health insurance.
As does the University of Florida.
Given that Florida and Georgia are both states that have made gay marriage illegal, yet can figure out a way to still offer their gay state university employees' partners insurance, it would seem feasible that UT could figure out something similar. (While UGA's insurance benefits are not yet effective, Adams' statements last week made it clear that it will happen before he steps down next summer.)
Not so, says UT spokesperson Margie Nichols.
"It depends on the state and some of the constitutional language in the state," Nichols says. She says Cheek will be issuing a new letter "soon" that details exactly what the legal reasons are that UT can't issue domestic partner benefits. Cheek told the Faculty Senate in late October the letter would be out in a couple of weeks then, but Nichols couldn't offer a more updated timeline.
In the meantime, Walker says his coalition filed an open records request with UT to try to determine what Cheek's reasonings might be. All that was released, Walker says, were a handful of e-mails in support of the benefit changes. The rest was supposedly protected by attorney-client privilege.
Nichols wouldn't comment on the open records request, nor would she elaborate on whether there were some benefits UT could offer other than health insurance that aren't part of a statewide plan, such as tuition assistance for partners or housing.
"I can't get into detail about this," Nichols says.
One thing that seems clear, though, is that whatever Cheek's letter says, whenever it is actually released, this issue is not going away. On Tuesday the University of Memphis Faculty Senate voted in favor of the university providing domestic partnership benefits. Walker says he thinks Tennessee Tech University and Middle Tennessee State University will also be taking up the issue soon. Although those three schools are governed by the Board of Regents and not UT's Board of Trustees, the employees are all on the same state health insurance.
Walker says for now the strategy at UT is to keep raising awareness of the issue and keep pressuring the administration.
"We hope the continued publicity will force them to act," he says.