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May 31, 2001

Pitt will study health benefits for same-sex partners of employees; suit against University is on hold

Chancellor Mark Nordenberg has appointed a 12-member committee to consider whether the University should extend health benefits to partners of gay and lesbian faculty and staff.

According to a May 29 Pitt announcement, "The group will report its findings and recommendations to the chancellor at the conclusion of the study." No further details were available.

"As for the specifics and the deadlines — some of which, I believe, haven't been formulated yet — you'd need to go through the chancellor's office," said committee chairperson William Lieberman, a Pitt trustee and executive vice president of Hilb, Rogal & Hamilton Co., a risk management firm.

A spokesperson for Chancellor Nordenberg said only that "the committee hasn't met yet, so a public discussion of its role would be premature at this point."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which represents seven current and former Pitt employees suing the University over denial of health benefits for their same-sex partners, has agreed to "temporarily suspend" litigation while the committee does its work. Pittsburgh ACLU Director Witold Walczak said his organization will "reassess the need for continuing the litigation after the committee issues its recommendation."

Pitt also has agreed not to pursue litigation in the case. This moratorium on legal action by both sides "opens the way to a full and impartial exploration of the ramifications and implications of the policy options available to the University," according to a Pitt statement.

The other trustee on the committee is Frank Mosier, retired vice chairperson of the BP America Advisory Board.

Administrators named to the committee are Executive Vice Chancellor Jerome Cochran and pharmacy school Dean Randy Juhl.

Faculty members are law professor Marvin Fein and Anne Medsger, a professor in the Graduate School of Public Health.

Staff appointees are Rich Colwell, president of the Staff Association Council, and Carol James, the council's past vice president.

Alumni on the committee are Mary Frances Gargotta, senior vice president and corporate human resources director for MARC USA, and Ernest Varhola, retired general manager of government affairs for Duquesne Light.

Student members of the committee are Michael Unangst, immediate past president of the Student Government Board, and Stephanie Hoogendoorn, immediate past president of the Graduate and Professional Student Association.

J. Wray Connolly, outgoing chairperson of Pitt's Board of Trustees, was consulted in the appointment of Lieberman and Mosier to the committee, said board secretary Robert Dunkelman.

Connolly has been outspoken in opposing the extension of Pitt health benefits to same-sex partners unless the University is legally forced to do so. On July 1, William S. Dietrich will succeed Connolly as board chairperson. Dietrich was a Carnegie Mellon University trustee in May 2000 when the Carnegie Mellon board voted to extend benefits to its employees' domestic partners.

Dietrich has declined to discuss the issue or how he voted. However, some members of the Pitt community have speculated that the leadership change on Pitt's board might open the way for extending health benefits to same-sex partners here.

Dunkelman disagreed. "I don't think the change in chairmen makes a difference," he said.

Plaintiffs, Pitt officials and members of the University community were unanimous in welcoming the Pitt-ACLU agreement, although some professors questioned why it was so long in coming.

"This is the same idea that our committee proposed seven years ago, when we wrote a letter to Connolly and suggested forming a group like this," complained English professor Richard Tobias, a long-time member of the University Senate's anti-discriminatory policies committee. Before initiating her discrimination lawsuit against Pitt in 1996, former legal writing instructor Deborah Henson sought the help of Tobias's committee.

"Connolly didn't even answer our letter," Tobias said. (In a July 1999 deposition by lawyers for Henson and her fellow plaintiffs, Connolly testified that he never received a request from the anti-discriminatory policies committee to discuss same-sex benefits.) Last spring, the Senate anti-discriminatory policies committee again proposed forming a group of faculty, administrators, trustees and others to consider the same-sex benefits issue. Anne Medsger, recently appointed to the committee that will advise Chancellor Nordenberg, chaired the Senate anti-discriminatory policies committee at that time.

Economics professor Herbert Chesler, co-chairperson of the Senate's benefits and welfare committee, said Pitt shouldn't bother with a special committee to study same-sex health benefits. "I think the University has failed in this area, and it ought to shift very quickly into the mainstream and just commit to providing these benefits.

"But, obviously, the Senate's anti-discriminatory policies committee disagreed with me," he added. "They felt that a special committee would be helpful."

Chesler predicted that the special committee will recommend extending health benefits to same-sex partners. "I don't think the arguments against it would be sufficiently powerful, economically, to conclude that this would not be in the University's best interests," he said.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Pitt concurred.

Deborah Henson, who initiated the litigation, said: "I'm optimistic that if Pitt is sincere and acting in good faith in terms of moving forward to resolve this issue, then the committee will end up recommending offering the benefits."

Fellow plaintiff Ray Anne Lockard, head of the Frick Fine Arts Library, said: "I feel hopeful, but it depends on what the panel comes up with. I think we're showing good faith and I think the formation of the panel is a good sign."

Lockard added: "When we lost the court decision [in April 2000] I still did not think it was a lost cause. I thought we should fight the good fight and press on legally. And we still have that option."

Plaintiff Mark Friedman, a staff member in the Graduate School of Public Health, also said he believes Pitt will grant the benefits. "I like the fact that the committee is not too large," he commented. "It seems like a manageable group.

"My biggest concern is that there be a reasonable time frame for this committee to do its work," Friedman said. "To me, that would be by Jan. 1."

Henson said that, even if the decision-making process drags on for a year, "that's still a shorter time frame than you would have with litigation."

Plaintiff Bruce L. Venarde, an associate professor of history, called the agreement announced last week "the first positive development in the case since it started more than five years ago. I'm guardedly optimistic, but I realize this is over [only] when it's over."

–Bruce Steele

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