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March 4, 1999

Some faculty decry Pitt challenge of city's non-discrimination law

At Tuesday's Faculty Assembly meeting, professors vented their anger, frustration and embarrassment at Pitt's challenge to a city law protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination.

"I find the position of the University on this issue [to be] both immoral and stupid," said Van Beck Hall, of the history department.

Iris M. Young, of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said she has received mail and phone calls from people around the country "wondering what kind of university I work for, that they [Pitt officials] would make such a challenge."

Several professors said they are offended and embarrassed by public perceptions that "the University" (rather than Pitt trustees and administrators) are challenging the city law.

"I am appalled at the challenge of the law in the name of the University, which is us," said psychology professor James Holland, referring to himself and fellow Pitt faculty members. "For them to be out there trying to overthrow in the courts an anti-discrimination law…it's a shame that the University is doing that. It's a real affront."

Christina Bratt Paulston, of linguistics, said: "When I read that 'the University does this' or 'the University does that'…the faculty are the University."

The Board of Trustees — not faculty, staff or students — is responsible for Pitt's challenge to the city law and for the decision to not extend health benefits to domestic partners of homosexual employees, Paulston noted.

She condemned what she called "the Neanderthal mentality" of Pitt trustees, who had no right "to bring the University into this mess," Paulston said.

Attorneys for Pitt challenged the city's anti-discrimination law as part of the University's legal fight against a complaint filed with the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations by Deborah Henson.

Henson, a former legal writing instructor here, alleges that Pitt violated the city law by denying health benefits to her lesbian partner.

Pitt officials argue that the city has no authority to enforce the part of its law that bans discrimination based on "sexual orientation" because the state has not passed a similar statute.

Last week, the Murphy administration filed a brief with the city Human Relations Commission disputing Pitt's claim. See story on page 3.

Since 1993, Pitt has offered I.D. cards and limited tuition remission to same-sex partners of homosexual employees if the couple can document that they are involved in a long-term, financially interdependent relationship.

But University officials argue that Pitt is not legally required to offer University-subsidized health insurance to same-sex partners. No other local college or university offers such benefits, the administration points out, and neither do any of Pennsylvania's other state-owned or -related universities, or the vast majority of private employers. The city itself does not provide such benefits to its employees.

Business administration professor Audrey Murrell touched off the Faculty Assembly discussion when she asked, on behalf of the University Senate anti-discriminatory policies committee (which she chairs), for Assembly input on Pitt's challenge to the city law.

Murrell said her committee plans to present a resolution on the issue at the next Faculty Assembly meeting, scheduled for April 6.

According to Murrell, Pitt's defense in the Henson case is inconsistent with the University nondiscrimination policy.

That policy prohibits "discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, age, marital status, familial status, sexual orientation, disability, or status as a disabled veteran or a veteran of the Vietnam era." The policy also states that Pitt "will continue to take affirmative steps to support and advance these values consistent with the University's mission. This policy applies to admissions, employment, access to and treatment in University programs and activities." Murrell distributed copies of a survey, compiled in November 1997 by Pitt's Affirmative Action office, showing that seven of Pitt's 26 fellow public institutions belonging to the Association of American Universities (AAU) offer health benefits to same-sex partners.

Among the seven, SUNY at Buffalo offers health coverage to unmarried heterosexual as well as homosexual domestic partners. The University of California system also extends coverage to dependent siblings or parents who live with their employees.

Don't the statistics show that Pitt's policy is in keeping with those at the great majority of public AAU schools? asked Leonard Plotnicov, of anthropology (who said he opposes Pitt's challenge to the city law).

Murrell sidestepped the question, replying that the trend since the mid-1990s has been for increasing numbers of universities to offer health benefits to same-sex partners.

She also urged Assembly members to focus on two things: whether Pitt's policy and challenge to the city law are damaging the University's public image, and whether they are consistent with the Pitt anti-discrimination policy.

Two professors spoke against extending health benefits to same-sex partners of employees.

David Adelson, of the School of Medicine, said such a move would discriminate against unmarried heterosexual couples, including students. "We can't exclude opposite-sex or same-sex partners," he said.

Other faculty members pointed out that heterosexual employees can qualify for Pitt spousal benefits by marrying, an option denied to homosexuals under Pennsylvania law.

Edward Redgate, also of the medical school, argued that spousal health benefits are outmoded and should be discontinued. Instead, he suggested, employers should reallocate that money toward "assisting families to have access to daycare and to have more flexible time to spend with their children when they're sick. This is the true interest of the state."

Also at the March 2 Assembly meeting:

* The Assembly amended a request to Pitt's administration for documents related to creation of the University of Pittsburgh Physicians (UPP) practice plan. At last month's Senate Council meeting, Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said he would not share all UPP-related Pitt and UPMC Health System contracts with the University Planning and Budgeting Committee and an ad hoc committee of medical professors. Faculty Assembly voted this week to limit the request to portions of UPP contracts directly relevant to clinical faculty.

The issue is on the agenda for the March 22 Senate Council meeting.

* Assembly members decided not to adopt a policy on pager/cellular phone use in classrooms. Senate President Nathan Hershey had proposed the policy to cut down on disturbances caused by pagers and phones, but most Assembly members agreed that individual faculty should be responsible for maintaining order in their classes.

— Bruce Steele

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