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Complaints about benefits aired at 'town meeting'
STANFORD -- Staff members, many of them upset over the announcement that employees will be charged for individual health coverage, peppered university administrators with questions and criticisms at a Nov. 1 "town meeting."
One staff member criticized the impending changes, saying he "didn't want to be paying for someone else's kids" by being charged $25 to $31 per month for individual health insurance. The amount employees pay for dependents is to drop somewhat. The changes go into effect next March for exempt employees and next November for non-exempt personnel.
"As our plan existed, it was unreasonably favorable to single subscribers, compared to families," President Donald Kennedy said in response. "In the long run, this program is going to benefit everybody."
Kennedy and Barbara Butterfield, vice president for human resources, both said that making employees pay for part of their health insurance would make them more "cost conscious" and would in turn increase competitiveness among the insurers. They also said that employees covered elsewhere, such as through a spouse, would no longer enroll in Stanford insurance just because it was free, saving the university its share of such premium payments.
Some employees were unswayed.
"A benefit is a form of compensation," one said. "This is a devalued form of a benefit; the proposed changes seem insulting, demeaning and unfair."
Another said that while "families are a natural part of this world," he thought the changes were unfair because "it's the same as making salaries higher for families."
However, a male employee implored his colleagues to consider "the broader issues" and not "focus on the local impact."
He reminded the man who complained about paying for "someone else's kids" that through Social Security payments "My kids will in the future be paying for this man's retirement!"
He urged the community to pull together and called the complaints "a good example of what we're going to face a lot of around here" as budget cuts begin to take shape.
A staff member asked whether the deferred annual raises, scheduled to take effect next March, would indeed be forthcoming. Kennedy said they would.
"Only an intervening event as unexpected and as large as the earthquake" would change that, the president said. "We are firmly expecting to do normal raises in March."
Another staffer asked whether, in light of the changes in health coverage, the university was considering altering its tuition benefit. Currently, full-time staff members with at least five years of service can obtain grants of up to half of Stanford's tuition to send their children to any accredited institution of higher learning.
Butterfield said there were no pending changes to the benefit. However, "We will manage it more aggressively," she said. "You'll find us asking for evidence of eligibility."
In other issues raised by the audience of about 175 faculty and staff members and students, a student criticized the recent decision to consider the income of the non-custodial parent when making up a student's financial aid package.
"This is an attempt to keep children of divorce out of the game," he said. "It makes us pawns."
Kennedy said Stanford was simply proposing to do what "all of our major competitors" are already doing, and said that "the plan still provides for special appeals in many cases."
One staff member asked how much money the university had spent on the centennial celebration. Kennedy and Peter Van Etten, chief financial officer, were unable to provide figures.
"The bills . . . will obviously be substantial," Kennedy said. "We believe the Monday night Stadium Spectacular was self- financing, but the final numbers are not in yet."
Another asked bluntly, "When will the demise of the vice president for administrative resources area be announced?"
Kennedy said it was too early to talk specifically, but did say that in the near future, "we will see a contraction in the number of vice presidents."
The demise of another unit, that of the graduate studies division, was brought up by another questioner. He asked whether the university was reconsidering its decision to decentralize the division in light of recent criticism in the Faculty Senate and elsewhere.
"We took a tough round of shots in the Senate, and we deserved it," Kennedy said. "I hope we learned something from the way we did that and don't repeat the mistake.
"(But) the fundamental decision to decentralize was a good one."
Several students protested possible cuts in the performing arts departments and programs. Kennedy said they were complaining prematurely.
"No decisions have been made yet," he said. "We will be pruning rather than hedge-trimming."
Jim Gibbons, dean of the school of engineering, told a graduate student who felt he was being left out of the budget decisions that graduate students were involved in every decision- making committee, at least within his school.
"There are probably 15 graduate students helping us decide how to make the cuts," Gibbons said.
Near the end of the two-hour session, an employee called on the administrators for "actions that are needed to keep this campus from breaking apart" during the tough times ahead.
Kennedy fell to his knees, thrust his arms outward in a theatrical motion, and called out, "Please don't fight!"
After the laughter subsided, Kennedy reminded the audience that "it's going to be hard" making budget cuts and fundamental changes in the way Stanford operates.
But when the process is over, Kennedy said, "People should emerge with the sense that even if they didn't win, the playing field was level."
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