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March 4, 1999

Trustees chairperson Connolly discusses same-sex benefits, Pitt response to suit

After the March 4 Board of Trustees meeting, Pitt senior administrators weren't commenting about the University's legal challenge to a city ordinance protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination in the workplace. They referred reporters to a written statement issued by Pitt that day. See text of statement on page 3.

But board Chairperson J.W. Connolly did stop to field questions from two reporters, even though he was due at another meeting on campus.

The following are Connolly's responses to questions from Bruce Steele of the University Times and Bill Schackner of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Any thoughts about reconsidering the board's position on benefits for same-sex couples, given the events of the last couple of weeks?

Connolly: No. I said when I took this job, and I will say once again, that I am not prepared to see this board distracted or disrupted by issues like that — which is why, even though one or more of my colleagues may have asked that we revisit the issue of the same-sex benefits that were extended [in 1993], I was not prepared to do that because I felt it was disruptive.

When you say "re-visit" those benefits, do you mean some trustees wanted to eliminate them?

When I became chairman of this board three years ago, there was a feeling that we ought to reopen that issue and eliminate the benefits that had been extended. I said: 'No, absolutely not. We're going to focus on the future of this University and on constructive matters.' There are no thoughts of reopening anything, as far as I'm concerned. There's a legal process underway and it needs to play out. That's it.

There's an argument that these kinds of issues can distract from larger priorities such as fundraising.

Do you want to make that argument? Go ahead.

Could it become a distraction, this whole issue?

I'm not prepared to allow it to become a distraction, and I've been very adamant about that.

More than one demonstrator today, who said they were gay, said: If Pitt is successful in challenging this city ordinance, essentially [the demonstrators] could lose their jobs, they could be thrown out of their apartments and they would have no legal recourse.

I do not believe that at all.

How would they be protected, if not by the ordinance?

Because they are citizens of this country and I don't think we care whether they are gay or straight. If they are good, productive, effective employees, I don't see any reason why their job would be in jeopardy just because of their sexual preference.

So the city law is superfluous, then, in terms of protecting the rights of…

I think their rights are protected as citizens. That is the kind of scare tactic that those people use, maybe because they can't think of any other thing to say. Let's let the process play out.

How do you feel when you hear people making accusations that you're homophobic, that the board is homophobic?

Are you asking me if I like girls? Is that what your question is?

No, I'm asking you how you feel about hearing accusations that you and the board are homophobic.

A board is made up of 30 or 40 or 50 people. Each have their own view on these issues. My own view has been articulated to you in the past. And that is, that I serve this institution in a fiduciary capacity. I believe that my responsibility is to try to move the University of Pittsburgh ahead, and I intend to do that. And I am not going to tolerate anything standing in the way.

So, is the University's objection to same-sex health benefits financial — that it would cost too much?

I don't know that the University has a stated objection to it. There is a lawsuit underway and we'll just let it be determined in the courts. We didn't bring the lawsuit, just remember that.

But the University made the arguments [against the city ordinance] in its response to the lawsuit.

What do you expect us to do, roll over and die?

Why not extend the benefits? What's the rationale?

Part of the rationale, as far as I'm concerned, is that to even get involved in that debate and discussion becomes a distraction, No. 1. And No. 2, I do not believe as a fiduciary that I or the board have the authority to give away University resources for something that is not required.

If these people would like to have these benefits, why don't they get on a bus and go to Harrisburg? Talk to the legislators in the Commonwealth and have the law changed. If the law is changed, requiring us to extend these benefits, we'll extend them the next day.

[Discrimination against homosexuals] has been equated with racial and gender discrimination. Do you think it's on that same level?

I don't know that there's any real discrimination here. If we are violating the law, then we need to comply with the law.

But there are lots of things the University extends that it's not legally required to extend.

Tell me about the things it extends that it's not required to extend.

Benefits to individual employees, for instance. I don't think there's any specific law that sets the level of compensation. But the University made a decision in this case not to extend [health benefits]. The rationale, beyond the fact that it's not required, is what?

I think that this Board of Trustees made a decision to extend certain benefits to same-sex partners. That's it.

When you refer to fiduciary responsibility, are you saying that the objection to extending [same-sex partner benefits to include] health benefits is a financial one, that it would be too expensive?

I am not sure that I know what the expense would be. I think the expense could be very substantial. But I'll bet you that the people outside [the meeting room] tell you that the expense would be $50,000 or $25,000.

That $50,000 estimate came [in 1993] from Pitt's own Human Resources office, based on the assumption that all heterosexual as well as homosexual couples who aren't married but who qualify as domestic partners would be participating.

That would be a $50,000 gift.

How much is it costing [the University] in legal fees to defend against this lawsuit?

I have no idea.

Would it be fair to say that it's more than $50,000?

Are you asking me whether, if somebody sues you, you ought to cave in to their demands, at least to the extent of your legal fees?

Is there a principle involved here beyond finances?

What do you mean, is there a principle involved? I'm not sure what…I mean, I think I've answered your questions openly and fairly and extensively.

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