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April 29, 1999

Hunger strike called off /Fast broken, sit-in begins

Hunger strike called off / Fast broken, sit-in begins

After 17 days, Pitt hunger strikers broke their fast yesterday without getting what they ultimately were seeking: a public meeting with Pitt trustees.

But the ex-strikers vowed to sit outside the office of the Board of Trustees Secretary until trustees agree to publicly discuss Pitt's denial of health benefits to domestic partners of gay and lesbian employees.

"We decided as a group that we would end our hunger strike today because it was obvious to us that sacrificing our health wasn't getting the job done. The University wasn't listening to us," said senior Robin Moll.

Moll herself dropped out of the strike after collapsing April 23 in the Cathedral of Learning. She was taken by ambulance to UPMC Presbyterian Hospital and released later that evening after receiving saline and glucose.

She and other protesters said they will continue camping outside the board secretary's office at 159 Cathedral of Learning until they get a public meeting with trustees.

"If there's actually a physical presence [outside the trustees office], perhaps they'll notice that there is actual discrimination going on at this campus and that they are ignoring it," junior Andrew Stangl said.

Last week, Board of Trustees Chairperson J. Wray Connolly offered to meet privately with two hunger strikers on the condition that the group as a whole first end the strike. Hunger strikers balked, saying Connolly's offer met none of their demands.

Connolly's offer of a private meeting still stands and Chancellor Mark Nordenberg also has offered to attend, Pitt spokesperson Ken Service said after the hunger strike ended.

But protesters again declined, insisting on a public meeting.

Pitt officials said the protesters are free to continue their sit-in, as long as they aren't disruptive and don't block access to hallways and offices, during hours the Cathedral is open. That's virtually 24 hours a day during finals week, which ends May 1. After that, the normal closing hour of 11:30 p.m. will resume.

Officially, the hunger strike ended at 2 p.m. yesterday. Ex-strikers munched gingerly on bananas, bread, saltines and graham crackers while sitting outside 159 Cathedral of Learning, coloring protest signs.

By yesterday, protesters said, the number of hunger strikers had declined from last week's peak of 22 to 17, including 16 students and one staff member: Shandra Williams, an administrative secretary at the Learning Research and Development Center.

"The hunger strike is over, but the issue is not resolved at all," Williams said.


Pitt does not offer health benefits to same-sex domestic partners.

The University asked the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations to dismiss a 1996 claim that Pitt violated the city's anti-discrimination ordinance by denying health benefits to an employee's lesbian partner. The city law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.

In defending itself against the claim by Deborah Henson, a former Pitt legal writing instructor, the University has challenged the city's authority to impose anti-discrimination requirements that exceed those mandated by the state.

See interview with Deborah Henson.

Attorneys for the Murphy administration filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Human Relations Commission, arguing that municipalities are authorized to determine what protections are needed to promote the safety and well-being of their citizens — even if those protections exceed state requirements. City attorneys cited a 1958 Pittsburgh fair housing ordinance, adopted five years before the state adopted a similar law to combat housing discrimination against blacks.

Most Pitt faculty and student governance groups have protested the University's challenge to the city's anti-discrimination law.

The hunger strikers joined in on April 12. Strikers demanded a meeting with Chancellor Nordenberg and an open forum with Pitt's Board of Trustees to discuss the challenge to the city ordinance as well as Pitt's denial of health benefits to same-sex domestic partners.

Nordenberg met with the hunger strikers April 14 but told them it was highly unlikely they would get what they were ultimately seeking: a public meeting with at least two-thirds of the trustees.

Board Chairperson Connolly offered to meet privately with two protesters on April 23 on the condition that the group as a whole first end the hunger strike. Hunger strikers declined.

Following the April 23 meeting of the trustees' executive committee — which a number of hunger strikers attended — Connolly told reporters he was disappointed that strikers spurned his invitation.

"I had hoped that they wanted to find a way to get themselves out of what is probably a lose-lose situation," Connolly said.

What's the problem with granting the strikers a public forum? a reporter asked.

"The problem is that we're going to set the agenda for this board," Connolly replied, "and that agenda will focus on matters that lead to the achievement of our goals and the realization of our vision, and not on collateral matters. I've made myself clear on this subject for a long time."


At a press conference yesterday morning, several hours before breaking their fast, hunger strikers denounced the trustees' refusal to meet with them publicly.

Under the white glare of TV lights in the Cathedral's shadowy Commons Room, student Andrew Stangl said open dialogue is critical for a university. "When the University ignores that kind of open dialogue, they shut down the educational process," he said. "As long as the University isn't willing to talk to its students, then it is an invalid educational institution and it has very little credibility with its students."

TV lights and reporters pivoted to focus on Pitt spokesperson Ken Service, who denied that Pitt has ignored the hunger strikers.

Chancellor Nordenberg met with the strikers; Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Robert Gallagher has been in almost daily contact with them; Pitt has offered medical assistance, and Nordenberg has joined Connolly in offering to meet privately with strikers, Service said.

"The University is a place of civil discourse, just as Andrew said," Service continued. "That civil discourse should not be initiated by threats of doing harm to yourself in order to force people to bend to your will."

Protesters pointed out that the University Senate committee on anti-discriminatory policies had tried unsuccessfully since 1995 to arrange a meeting with trustees to discuss health benefits for same-sex partners.

Robin Moll said she and other protesters want to hold trustees publicly accountable for denying equal benefits to homosexual faculty and staff.

"What are they hiding?" Moll asked. "Why would they not be willing to meet with us in public?"

Service said Pitt officials have made no secret of their stance on health benefits for same-sex partners. He referred strikers and reporters to an April 28 Post-Gazette op-ed piece by Pitt Executive Vice Chancellor Jerry Cochran.

According to Cochran, the state Insurance Department has indicated that if the University gave health benefits to same-sex partners, it would also have to provide them to heterosexual partners.

"Demographic experts estimate that over 50 percent of couples who ultimately marry live together, and who can predict who else might qualify as a 'live-in partner?" Cochran wrote.

If 10 percent of the 3,292 Pitt employees receiving individual benefits would demand benefits for their straight or gay partners, it would cost Pitt an estimated $750,000, Cochran wrote. At 25 percent, the estimated cost would be $2 million; at 50 percent, $4 million; and if all 3,292 employees added spousal coverage, the cost would be $7 million, he wrote.

"And where does this money come from?" Cochran asked.

Service insisted that a private meeting with Pitt's trustees chairperson and chancellor was "quite reasonable."

"If, in fact, it were a public meeting, all of you gentlemen and ladies from the media would be there conducting this kind of a situation," Service said into a thicket of microphones. "That doesn't really lend itself to serious, rational discourse."

Shenu Gupta, a first-year law student, replied: "We're not asking for a zoo. We have, all along, wanted one thing: an intelligent, adult discussion with the people who are making the decisions.

"We have already proposed, if given the opportunity for an open forum with trustees, to sit down at a negotiating table, to make sure that they feel comfortable and that we feel comfortable."

Protesters said they decided to end their hunger strike the night of April 27, after meeting with a representative of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

But they didn't announce the move at yesterday morning's press conference because they didn't want Service and other Pitt officials present to take credit for ending the strike.

"We wanted to make it clear that this was our decision, that the administration and trustees had nothing to do with it," Moll said. "Now we can start to regain our health and find new ways to fight the battle."

— Bruce Steele

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