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April 13, 2000



Constructive criticism of Pitt policy, not belittlement, was the point

To the editor:

I regret that Ken Service, director of the Office of News & Information, apparently equates belittlement of the University with my criticism of Pitt's domestic benefits policy, which I expressed in the hope of being constructive (see our letters in the University Times, March 30, 2000). As a former vice president and president of the University Senate as well as member of numerous Senate committees over the past 25 years, and a member of two Senate committees at this writing, it is not my intention to belittle my long-time academic home.

On the contrary, Pitt has extraordinary potential to "become one of the best," as Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said in his "State of the University" address at the recent Senate plenary session (reported in the same University Times issue), and I support that goal in every way.

Ken Service feels that the appropriate institution with which to compare Pitt on the question of domestic benefits is Penn State, not Carnegie Mellon, because both Pitt and Penn State receive considerable state funding. That funding presumably would be put at risk by the outrage of state legislators and/or the governor were either institution to award domestic partner benefits. Note that no one is advocating expanding the legal definition of "marriage" to same-sex couples as Service seems to suggest; "civil union" seems the more accurate term, the one employed in the case of the pending bill in the Vermont state legislature to extend such benefits. (This initiative was discussed in positive terms in a recent Washington Post editorial, stressing the need for tolerance, the position underscored by the CMU Human Relations Commission in its report recommending such benefits to its constituents.) In fact, both CMU and Penn State are very different institutions from Pitt, and I don't have the impression that the chancellor's vision and that of the Board of Trustees requires modeling the University's future development after either of them. Rather, I think Pitt is seen in those visions as the primary agent of its own future, as I also see it.

Even so, in citing the CMU report on domestic partner benefits, I wanted to make the point that there may be something to be learned from the example of the many Ivy League, Big Ten and other major universities in the country that have extended these benefits (the CMU report lists some 60 of them in an appendix, institutions among which Pitt would be happy to be numbered, and often is). Asking the University administration seriously to consider these facts is hardly a question of "fruitlessly belittling" the University.

Service refers to what he considers the exemplary reaction of the Penn State faculty in "turning their efforts toward changing opinions in Harrisburg," calling it "an example of shared governance worthy of consideration." Since I am now completing nearly five years as a member of the Senate commonwealth relations committee — which has as its purpose the strengthening of relations with state legislators, especially those from southwestern Pennsylvania — I couldn't agree more.

Furthermore, my experience on that committee makes me question the likelihood of the University being harmed financially if it extends domestic partner benefits while making its reasons for doing so quite clear. I have been very impressed with the hard-working legislators I have met, and the seriousness with which they take their responsibilities. I don't think this is an overriding issue with most of them. They are aware of the economic importance of Pitt in this region and in the commonwealth, and in general I find them very supportive (although clearly aware, as we all are, of the traditional limitations of state support in Pennsylvania). If Service feels that the faculty might even change the minds of the more recalcitrant legislators, I suggest that strong leadership on the administration's part is also required.

Ken Service quotes the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as supporting the University's position when it stated in an editorial that it did "not believe that the city's gay rights ordinance requires companies to provide the same benefits to domestic partners that they provide to spouses." Yet on April 1 (and apparently not as an April Fool's joke) the Post-Gazette published an editorial which seems to make that judgment less pertinent. The editorial points out that the CMU Human Relations Commission's report underscores the need to be competitive, and that means that health benefits are an important consideration in recruiting top-notch faculty. The editorial closes: "If Pitt aspires to compete on a national level it may discover that not following Carnegie Mellon's lead [with regard to domestic-partner benefits] will result in a different sort of penalty [from that of losing some state funding]."

Keith McDuffie

Professor Emeritus

Hispanic Languages & Literatures


Ken Service, director of the Office of News & Information, responds:

I regret that Professor McDuffie took offense at my previous comments. None was intended. Quite to the contrary, my reply to his original letter was simply a response to the issues raised. At the risk of turning our dialogue into a regular feature of the University Times, I would like to offer a few brief additional comments. This time, however, I present them with the stated caveat that they apply solely to the issues under discussion.

More than a year ago, Penn State University President Graham Spanier rejected the request for same-sex benefits following warnings from elected officials that the university would be putting its state appropriation in jeopardy if it offered the benefits. That rationale was accepted without criticism by the Penn State community. Since then, there have been further comments and actions from the state legislature to support that concern, and no evidence to contradict it. In fact, the same April 1 Post-Gazette editorial states that the University of Pittsburgh is "dependent on funding from a state legislature that might punish Pitt financially if the university moved to offer same-sex benefits."

The recommendations contained in the report completed by the CMU Human Relations Commission are based, according to the report's own wording, on "pragmatic" reasons. Not surprisingly, since CMU is a private university, the report makes no mention whatsoever of the opinions of the state's elected officials on this subject. However, the policies of state government, and the potential financial jeopardy inherent in ignoring them, is a pragmatic issue that Pitt, just like Penn State, cannot ignore.

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