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June 8, 2000

Assembly says committee should look at same-sex health benefits

Assembly says committee should look at same-sex health benefits

Previous resolutions by faculty and student governance groups have not persuaded Pitt's administration to offer health benefits to employees' same-sex partners.

But Faculty Assembly is giving it one more try by asking Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and the Board of Trustees to create "a joint committee of concerned persons" to study the same-sex benefits issue.

According to a resolution that Assembly members approved unanimously June 6, the committee's task would be to draft a health benefits policy that is "consistent with the University's non-discriminatory policy, consistent with the University's mission to achieve academic and research excellence, and consistent with our mission to provide leadership for diversity in western Pennsylvania."

Previous collaborations of faculty, administrators and trustees have resolved other contentious issues such as divestiture of South African stocks in the 1980s, the Assembly resolution pointed out.

"Shared governance and open discussion can resolve this [same-sex benefits] conflict and enable the University to comply with its own policy of non-discrimination," the resolution stated. "We must strive to end the continued damage to the University's reputation and prepare for the next recruitment season. We cannot recruit the quality of faculty, staff and students that we want as long as we discriminate against some."

Pitt administrators deny that the University discriminates against gays and lesbians, noting that Pitt extends spousal health benefits based on employees' marital status, not their sexual orientation. Critics argue that homosexuals cannot legally marry, so Pitt's policy is de facto discriminatory.

The University Times could not reach Chancellor Nordenberg or trustees chairperson J. Wray Connolly for comment, but Pitt spokesperson Ken Service said the chancellor will seriously consider the Assembly resolution.

Service objected to faculty complaints that the administration has ignored previous resolutions by the Assembly and Senate Council urging Pitt to drop its legal and policy opposition to same-sex health benefits.

"The chancellor seriously considers any resolution or recommendation that comes from University governance groups," Service said after the Assembly meeting. "The chancellor has sat in this very room on several occasions and explained the University's position. It's not that he has not responded on this issue. Perhaps the responses he's given have not been ones that some people have wished to hear, but in fact he has been responsive."

Professors said they hope this latest Assembly resolution will elicit a response from Chancellor Nordenberg when it's reported on at Monday's Senate Council meeting, which the chancellor and other senior administrators are expected to attend.

"This is an issue that will not go away," said economics professor Jerome Wells. "It's an issue where Carnegie Mellon has acted impressively [in recently extending same-sex health benefits] and we've acted like idiots. I don't think our administration is aware of what it's doing to its own reputation on this."

Social work professor Tracy Soska said publicity over Pitt's policy is hurting his school's recruiting and fundraising. The University's arguments against extending same-sex benefits "just aren't holding water with faculty and student applicants and with potential donors, at least not in my school," he said.

Soska recalled a recent conversation with a corporate executive who is a social work alumnus: After listening to the alumnus protest Pitt's policy, Soska noted that the alumnus's company doesn't offer same-sex health benefits either. According to Soska, the alumnus replied that his company is in the business of making profits, whereas Pitt is supposed to be "a bastion of enlightenment and advancing knowledge."

Some professors are suggesting that Pitt faculty unionize and make the extension of same-sex benefits a collective bargaining issue, Soska said.

Pitt officials say state lawmakers have threatened to cut the University's funds if it offers same-sex health benefits, but Assembly members dismissed that threat.

No law requires Pitt to give health benefits to any employee, the Assembly resolution noted. Denying spousal health benefits to gays and lesbians "creates clear hardship" for those employees, the resolution said.

If faculty at Pennsylvania's four state-related universities — Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln — acted together and persuaded their respective administrations to extend health benefits to employees' same-sex partners, it's extremely unlikely the state would cut the schools' funding, said English professor Richard Tobias.

The University of Pennsylvania, a private school that receives a comparatively small state subsidy, offers same-sex health benefits but hasn't had its funding cut, said University Senate president Nathan Hershey.

Walter Goldburg, of physics and astronomy, called on Chancellor Nordenberg to follow the example of Penn State president Graham Spanier and publicly declare that he supports same-sex health benefits even though Harrisburg political considerations prevent his administration from extending them for the time being.

History of art and architecture professor Ann Sutherland Harris argued that Pitt's health benefits policy must cover unmarried partners of heterosexual as well as homosexual employees. "Otherwise, we're still discriminating," she said.

Members of the Senate's anti-discriminatory policies committee, which wrote the Assembly resolution, said their proposal was intended to benefit gays and lesbians, and that including heterosexuals could substantially increase Pitt's health benefits expenses. But it's an issue that could be considered by the proposed joint committee, they said.

q Two days before the Faculty Assembly meeting, other critics of the University's health benefits policy took their protest off-campus to target a Pitt trustee.

Members of the Equal Rights Alliance (ERA), a group made up primarily of Pitt students, and the Coalition Against Discrimination at Pitt, a group of University employees and community activists, picketed the Squirrel Hill Eat'n Park June 4. The target of the protest was trustee Suzanne Broadhurst, who is the restaurant chain's director of corporate giving and wife of Eat'n Park CEO James Broadhurst. She was not present at the protest site.

ERA spokesperson Holly Lewis said this is the first time the group has targeted a specific trustee at a demonstration.

Trustee Thomas J. Usher, chairman and CEO of USX Corp., is tentatively the next target, according to Lewis. As term trustees, Usher and Broadhurst are voting members of the board.

Lewis said her group sent requests for private meetings to all Pitt trustees in April 1999. She said one trustee agreed to a private meeting on condition of anonymity; all others declined or did not respond.

The ERA sent two follow-up requests for a private meeting to Broadhurst last month because she is a member of the board's executive committee, which helps set the board's agenda, Lewis said. Broadhurst did not respond to either request.

"Silence is complicity. We want to hear Suzanne Broadhurst's position, as well as where all the trustees stand," Lewis said.

Eat 'n Park was not the target of the protest, she noted. About 25 marchers joined in the hour-long picketing.

In a prepared statement, Pitt spokesperson Service said: "Mrs. Broadhurst is aware of the demands being raised by this group, and she is also aware that the University's position in this matter has been explained to them on several occasions. While she appreciates the concerns which the students are expressing, the fact that the issues involved in the provision of same-sex health benefits at the University of Pittsburgh are in litigation precludes the possibility of her discussing the matter with them at this time."

Pitt is embroiled in a civil suit over its health benefits policy. Deborah Henson, a former Pitt legal writing instructor, filed a complaint in January 1996 with the Pittsburgh Human Relations Commission, alleging that the University discriminated against her by denying health coverage to her lesbian partner. Six current Pitt employees later joined Henson in a class action suit, which currently is before Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert C. Gallo.

Gallo granted Pitt's request for a temporary injunction April 20, which suspended Human Relations Commission proceedings. See University Times, April 27. Pitt filed a motion for a permanent injunction May 23 with Gallo's office.

According to ACLU attorney Christine Biancheria, who represents the seven complainants, a response to Pitt's motion for a permanent injunction will be filed by June 20.

She said the response will keep the litigation in Common Pleas Court while leaving open the option of appealing to a higher court.

— Bruce Steele and Peter Hart

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