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March 30, 2000


Lack of shared governance an issue here in debate over same-sex benefits

To the editor:

The recent Carnegie Mellon University report recommending that the university amend its policy on health benefits to include qualified same-sex couples underscores the striking differences in its approach to the question as compared to Pitt's, and appears to reveal a qualitative distinction in the cultures of the two institutions. I refer specifically to the question of shared governance or, at the very least, the serious consideration of faculty and staff opinion in decision-making.

Whatever one's stance on the issue of same-sex benefits (and I am strongly in favor of them), the contrast between the way in which CMU has handled the matter, generating positive publicity for itself in the process, and the way Pitt has handled it, generating seemingly endless negative publicity in the process, is profound.

The process at CMU was initiated by former President Mehrabian nearly a year ago when he asked CMU's Human Relations Commission to study the matter. CMU's HRC, which was established to explore and study controversial issues involving the university community, is made up of a chair appointed by the administration as well as some other members, with the remainder appointed by CMU's Faculty Senate and Staff Council. The HRC also elects a few members of its own. The commission cannot compel any member of the university community to do anything, but relies on the power of persuasion. In short, it is a reasonably democratic and representative commission intended to resolve potential conflict within the university before damage is done.

This approach contrasts sharply with Pitt's in this case, which through the Board of Trustees' actions and those of certain administrators and outside legal advisers, has attempted to stonewall the issue, producing highly unfavorable publicity and legal expenses in the process. Furthermore, it has basically ignored the recommendations of the University Senate affirmative action committee, and in effect has so far rejected the right of faculty and staff to have a real voice in the matter. The relatively low cost of extending benefits to qualified same-sex couples is surely overshadowed by the cost, legal and moral, of such an approach. But equally important is the fact that such behavior violates the rights of individuals within the University and makes a mockery of the concept of shared governance.

I use the term moral advisedly, because in the end this is the nature of the approach taken by CMU's HRC. Noting that people on both sides of the issue believe themselves on high moral ground, and that therefore no decision will please everyone, the CMU commission nonetheless points to tolerance as the central distinguishing characteristic of a great modern university, which is necessarily "composed of different ethnic groups, nationalities, religions, colors and, yes, sexual orientations." While not ignoring the practical issues (i.e. the demonstrably low cost of such benefits, the removal of an important obstacle to hiring and retaining the best faculty members), the recommendation is based primarily on the concept of tolerance, which involves compensating all individuals equally for the same work, without prejudice as to their sexual orientation.

Even though I have seen only a draft copy, I highly recommend the CMU commission's report as one of the more distinguished documents issuing of late from a university committee of any kind. It is direct and clear and even elegant in its trenchant examination of the issue. The conclusions are based on considerable nationwide research of various aspects of the topic, and positions on all sides are fairly considered. Whatever the final outcome at CMU, so far the approach, while admittedly rather belated in comparison to other major Ivy League and important research institutions with which CMU feels competitive, has all the distinguishing marks of a great modern university. As the Gospel says, Qui potest capere capiat, which I would translate as "Let s/he who can, comprehend."

Keith McDuffie

Professor Emeritus

Hispanic Languages & Literatures


Ken Service, director, Office of News & Information, replies: To Keith McDuffie A comparison between Pitt and Carnegie Mellon on the subject of health benefits for the same-sex partners of employees reveals a much more significant distinction in institutional circumstances than it does in institutional culture.

The most obvious difference is that Pitt is a state-related university, not a private university like CMU. While CMU may be free to ignore the views of the executive and legislative branches of the Pennsylvania government, as a state-related institution Pitt must consider the actions and views of those bodies in setting policies.

The legislature has indicated an unwillingness to expand the legal definition of "marriage" to include same-sex relationships and publicly suggested that appropriations might be withheld from state-related institutions that extended health-insurance benefits to same-sex couples. A spokesperson for the executive branch has publicly indicated that the state government does not offer same-sex benefits to its employees, and so, it would be inappropriate for a state-related university to contradict that policy.

Another very basic difference is that for the past four years (about the same amount of time that the CMU commission has been dealing quietly with this issue) Pitt has been forced to operate within the constraints of a legal action before the Pittsburgh Human Relations Commission. That proceeding, brought by a former writing instructor and since joined by others, contends that the city's human relations act requires Pitt to provide health insurance benefits to same-sex domestic partners. The publicity generated by that action is not "produced" by the University, but, instead, by those who would attempt to denigrate the University so as to distract attention from their attempt to use this city ordinance for purposes for which it was never intended.

Interestingly enough, the same news media that cover these attempts also acknowledge the validity of the University's position, as exemplified by an editorial on the issue in the Post-Gazette which stated: "[W]e do not believe that the city's gay rights ordinance requires companies to provide the same benefits to domestic partners that they provide to spouses."

Additionally, it is not accurate to say that the views of Senate committees have been "ignored." Quite to the contrary, the chancellor has frequently discussed this issue at public meetings of the Senate Council, as well as in written form in the University Times and the Post-Gazette.

If one feels compelled to make comparisons about shared governance, a more valid approach might be to compare institutions of similar type and situation, such as Pitt and Penn State. When the Penn State faculty petitioned for health benefits for the same-sex partners of employees, the Penn State administration rejected that proposal on the basis that elected officials had warned that the University's appropriation could be in jeopardy. Perhaps recognizing that the issue involved was larger than any one institution, the Penn State faculty turned their efforts towards changing opinions in Harrisburg, rather than fruitlessly belittling their own university. That might be an example of shared governance worthy of some consideration.


Ushers needed for production

To the editor:

Shakespeare in the Schools needs ushers for April 4, 5, 7, 11. Performances are in Stephen Foster. Ushers will be needed from 8:30 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. (maybe a few minutes later).

Please call 802-0810 if you can usher and leave 1) your name, 2) phone number, and 3) the date you can usher — or e-mail Ushers will watch the show for free and have the department's humble thanks for their help.

Patricia Bianco

Department of Theatre Arts  

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