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Faculty Senate to consider domestic partners issue

STANFORD -- Should benefits, including health insurance, be extended to the unmarried "domestic partners" of Stanford faculty and staff? If so, should that include both opposite-sex and same-sex partners?

The Faculty Senate will take up those issues Thursday, Oct. 29, when it considers a report that unanimously supports parity in health benefits, the tuition grant program, athletic privileges, library privileges, the right to audit university courses and other benefits.

Whatever action the senate takes will be advisory only. Ultimately, President Gerhard Casper and the Board of Trustees will decide the issue.

In a report issued last June, the Subcommittee on Domestic Partners' Benefits of the University Committee on Faculty-Staff Benefits recommended extending to domestic partners of unmarried faculty and staff all benefits now available to spouses of married employees.

if budget considerations preclude both, priority in implementing the policy should be given to same-sex partners over opposite-sex partners, the subcommittee said.

"Unmarried heterosexual partners have the option to marry if they wish, thereby securing whatever benefits are available to marital partners. Gays and lesbians do not," the subcommittee wrote.

If opposite-sex couples choose not to marry because of lack of emotional commitment or desire to avoid financial commitments, the university "seems justified in refusing to accommodate it, and indeed in insisting on marriage as a prerequisite to coverage."

On the other hand, gays and lesbians have no option to comply with a prerequisite of marriage, the subcommittee said.

The subcommittee defined domestic partners as two individuals living together in an intimate, long-term relationship of indefinite duration and who "agree to be financially responsible for each other's well-being, including basic living expenses."

Employees applying for the benefit should be required to sign a declaration stating they have met those conditions, the subcommittee recommended.

The subcommittee also recommended tightening the definition of domestic partners for students, who presently are not required to be financially responsible for each other.

The Medical School Faculty Senate in September endorsed the proposal in a 22-3 vote. More than 200 faculty members representing all seven schools have attached their names to an Oct. 19 letter addressed to the Faculty Senate, supporting the initiative.

The university Faculty Senate in spring 1991 postponed voting on the issue, seeking instead further study of the issue. President Donald Kennedy then appointed the subcommittee, which was chaired by law Professor Barbara Fried. The subcommittee's report was affirmed by the full committee, which forwarded it to Kennedy during the summer.

Senators have been asked to study the subcommittee's 61-page, single-spaced report - plus additional appendixes - before Thursday's discussion.

In the report, the subcommittee said the case for making the change "rests on the university's express policy barring discrimination in employment (including in compensation) on the basis of sexual orientation or marital status."

Extending benefits to same-sex couples, the subcommittee wrote, "will have enormous symbolic significance for all gays and lesbians at Stanford, conveying more forcefully than any general statement of nondiscrimination ever could the university's belief that they are full and valued members of this community, whose relationships and whose needs are as deserving of attention as others'."

Because unmarried heterosexuals face "little if any social stigma at Stanford or most other parts of American society anymore," the case for them is "less compelling," the report said.

The subcommittee estimated that the cost of providing dental insurance and the tuition benefit for domestic partners would not be significant.

Extending health insurance to same-sex domestic partners might cost the university $30,000 to $60,000 per year, the subcommittee said, estimating that 40 to 60 employees would enroll in the program. The figure could rise to $70,000 to $140,000 if 90 to 135 heterosexual domestic partners are included.

"These estimates represent a relatively trivial portion of the university's current $24 million budget for medical benefits," the subcommittee wrote.

The group also looked at potential worst-case scenarios, hypothesizing pessimistic cost estimates as a result of HIV-related illnesses and a "significant degree of adverse selection."

In the case of same-sex partners, the committee said, the worst-case total health cost could conceivably range from $150,000 to $230,000. Under this scenario, if the incremental costs were passed on to all employees - instead of being paid by the university - premiums would increase about $1 per month. The estimates do not reflect any employer's actual experience with domestic partner medical coverage, the report said.

Another cost to the university is a potential loss of support among alumni, some of whom opposed the 1990 decision to extend domestic partner benefits to students. "We suspect that at least in the short run, the decision will adversely affect alumni relations," the subcommittee wrote.

"Were public relations Stanford's sole concern, the prudent course would be for the school to act only when a significant number of other employers had already acted on the issue," the report said.

A number of municipalities and major corporations already have extended benefits to domestic partners, the subcommittee noted, but if Stanford adopts parity, it would be in the forefront in higher education.

Had Stanford taken the lead 40 years ago in "eradicating discrimination against blacks, women or Jews," the subcommittee said, its decisions "would have been politically unpopular with many alumni, as well as with the larger political community."

"One also imagines that had Stanford taken such a leadership role, few in the Stanford community would look back on that decision now with anything but pride," the subcommittee wrote.


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