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Faculty endorses benefits parity for domestic partners

STANFORD -- The Faculty Senate has endorsed the concept of benefits parity for same-sex and opposite-sex domestic partners of faculty and staff.

In a divided voice vote with approximately a half dozen "nays," the senate on Thursday, Oct. 29, told President Gerhard Casper that it would like domestic partners to have the same benefits now available to faculty and staff spouses, including health insurance, the tuition grant program for children, athletic and library privileges, the right to audit university courses and the partner's right to remain in on-campus housing after an employee's death.

The senate vote is advisory only. The issue ultimately will be decided by Casper and the Board of Trustees. Approximately 30 to 35 of the 55- member senate was present when the vote was taken several minutes past the usual 5:30 p.m. adjournment time.

Casper, who is out of town, is unavailable for comment. He is expected to take up the issue with trustees at their next meeting Dec. 7-8.

After the vote, one of the measure's primary advocates predicted that Casper and the trustees will feel "compelled by the voice of the senate" to approve the measure.

Katherine O'Hanlan, assistant professor in the School of Medicine and associate director of the gynecologic cancer service, said the senate had taken "the moral high ground" on the issue.

"I'm pleased that such a resonant majority was in support," she said. "I feel wonderfully supported."

Several senators spoke against the measure, saying the university should not be in the position of certifying unmarried relationships and the senate should not be used by pressure groups.

Some were less than enthusiastic about extending parity to opposite-sex couples, who have the option of marriage. A motion to vote separately for opposite-sex and same-sex parity was turned down.

But overall, the senate's mood seemed to be summed up by Professor David Botstein, genetics, when he said that "most of us want to have a statement that discrimination for people who cannot get married should be remedied."

Near the end of the discussion, senators turned collective editor, striking from the resolution the words "gay" and "lesbian" as unnecessary and possibly judgmental parenthetical descriptors of "same-sex."

They also struck "intimate" as an unnecessary modifier to "longterm relationship."

The definition of domestic partner now reads, in part: ". . . two individuals who live together in a longterm relationship of indefinite duration, with an exclusive mutual commitment similar to that of marriage, in which the partners agree to be financially responsible for each others' well-being, and each others' debts to third parties." The definition also specifies that the partners are not blood relatives.

The measure recommended that employees enrolling their domestic partners be required to sign a declaration stating that those conditions had been met.

Symbolism for same-sex couples

Introducing the senate resolution on behalf of its backers, law Professor William Simon expressed disappointment that the inclusion of opposite-sex unmarried couples would dilute the symbolism of benefits parity as an expression of civil rights for gays and lesbians. Hardly anyone, he said, believes that the issue for unmarried heterosexual couples is as compelling as that for same-sex couples.

Simon said he nevertheless supported the combined resolution and hoped the administration would act "expeditiously" to adopt it.

Invited to address the senate before its debate, O'Hanlan said the senate resolution was not intended as a political statement. Rather, she said, it grants gay and lesbian faculty and staff members who are in marriage-like relationships access to the same benefits. "The issue is access," she said.

"We are your colleagues, and we deserve equal treatment," she said.

She said that approximately 60 percent of gays and lesbians are in marriage-like relationships and a survey indicated that 90 percent of those couples report commingling their financial resources.

Lack of access to benefits, she said, penalizes gays and lesbians because they contribute to the Stanford benefits pool, but cannot take advantage of its features. After the meeting, O'Hanlan said she has paid $2,000 annually in post-tax dollars to purchase insurance for her partner. Such individual policies are "more arbitrarily administered, are much more costly and usually less broad," she told the senate.

She cited numerous businesses and municipalities that now provide benefits for domestic partners - including Lotus Computer Co., Apple Computer, Silicon Graphics, Levi Strauss and the cities of Cambridge, Mass., and East Lansing, Mich. She said that several universities "are poised to do so."

O'Hanlan developed the proposed legislation in early 1991, working with then-senator Deborah Rhode, professor of law, who sponsored the measure.

The senate took up the issue that spring, asking the University Committee on Faculty and Staff Benefits for a report more thorough than one brought at that time to the faculty legislative body.

After a yearlong study, a subcommittee on Domestic Partners' Benefits in June 1992 issued a 61-page, single-spaced report unanimously proposing benefits extension to domestic partners of same-sex couples and adding an endorsement for opposite-sex couples, which had not been included in the original proposal.

Subcommittee chair Barbara Fried, law, explained to the senate that her group studied the opposite-sex partner issue because members assumed it would be raised eventually. Subcommittee members felt the case for opposite-sex parity was weaker because those couples have the option of marriage.

As for costs, Fried said there was a "paucity of good empirical data" to make detailed estimates. There is some concern, she said, that the cost of covering domestic partners would be significantly higher because of HIV- related disease risk in the gay male population.

However, all existing studies show no higher cost for domestic partners than for conventional families, she said. Reasons for this are not clear, but it appears that health costs for lesbians may be below average and that expenses for HIV-related illnesses may also be lower than expected, she said.

Most domestic partners are employed, Fried said, and probably would find it cheaper to enroll in their own employer-subsidized insurance than be carried as a dependent on one of the Stanford plans. Statistics from the cities of San Francisco and Berkeley support this idea, she said.

'Quaint and old-fashioned'

Acknowledging that he would "seem quaint and old-fashioned," Professor Bradley Efron, statistics, opened the debate saying the proposal made him "uneasy."

Efron said he had no doubts about the subcommittee's report, which he labeled "excellent," but said he opposed having the senate involved in the issue. He said senators are "called advisers, but the sponsors seek us out as a pressure group." Allowing the senate to play an advocacy role is "irresponsible," he said.

He also questioned who would pay the cost of extending benefits. The deliberations "would be more honest" if the faculty knew how much they would have to pay, he said.

Disagreeing with Efron, Professor Ronald Rebholz, chairman of English, said "this body ought to advocate" adoption of the policy.

The issue is one of "moral importance," Rebholz said, relating to the "civil rights and discrimination against some of us who have been discriminated against for a lifetime."

Rebholz said that the proposal should be accepted if it would move the university in the direction of greater equity and if it meets the test of financial feasibility. He said it seemed likely that the costs would be comparable to those covering spouses and children.

Rebholz said the proposal should be approved "with passion, with enthusiasm, with strong endorsement so the president hears the message and heeds the message, and presents the case as forcefully as possible to the trustees."

Professor Richard Tsien, molecular and cellular physiology, said he supported the policy. The feeling that they are being discriminated against is "disabling" to part of the Stanford community, he said. Tsien chairs the Medical School's panel on diversity.

Revamp benefits

Economist John Shoven, director of the Center for Economic Policy Research, said he valued Stanford's "open and pluralistic community," but would vote against the resolution because the university "shouldn't be in the position of certifying unmarried relationships."

Extending benefits to same-sex partners but not opposite-sex partners would be discriminatory, he said. And the new policy would open the door to other demands, such as the addition of parents, he said.

The best solution, he suggested, would be to offer a cafeteria-style plan where employees could divide their benefit dollars among various choices.

Such a plan would not necessarily cost more, Shoven said.

Under a cafeteria plan, employees without children, for example, could put more dollars into medical benefits for partners or other relatives since they do not need the tuition-grant program.

Economics Professor Paul David said the subcommittee made a "persuasive case that the university should extend benefits," but he joined Shoven in preferring a more radical reorganization of benefits programs rather than the solution proposed.

"Where should we stop?" David asked, suggesting that other groups "could claim preferential treatment."

Professor Myra Strober, education, warned that industry experts say cafeteria-style benefits are "extremely complex" to implement. She said the proposal should not be defeated in favor of studying wholesale changes in the benefits structure.

Rebholz said cafeteria-style benefits might have helped him with parents, but would have been too expensive for the university.

Sanctity of marriage

Professor David Abernethy, political science, said he was in the difficult and contradictory position of wanting to include same-sex couples but also maintain marriage as a criterion for benefits. This would affirm the importance of marriage in sanctifying relationships, he said.

He said he would like to see a legally sanctioned marriage for same-sex couples, but pending that change, would want to verify that both members of a same-sex partnership envisage themselves as married if that option were available.

He also suggested that the university "ratchet down" the domestic partner rules for students, so that heterosexual student couples would have to be married to be eligible for the benefit.

Since fall 1990, students have had the option of declaring themselves to be domestic partners. Of 99 couples who so declared this fall and are living together in campus housing, only six couples are same-sex partners.

Senate Steering Committee member Terry Karl said the committee's decision to include opposite-sex couples in the resolution was not intended to undercut the argument for same-sex couples.

She said that she wanted to see Stanford "in the lead" in stopping discriminatory practices and that enacting the policy would ultimately help the university in faculty and staff recruitment and retention.

She said most faculty and staff work with colleagues who do not receive the same benefits as they do. That is "deeply troubling," she said.

The discussion of marriage and moral values made her nervous, she said. "I feel a little bit like I did watching the Republican Convention." The discussion should focus on issue of discrimination and university excellence, she said.

After the vote, Senate Chair William Northway, diagnostic radiology, announced that the Steering Committee would suggest that Casper and others try to make the student domestic-partners policy more similar to that of faculty and staff, if it is approved. The student policy does not require that partners assume financial responsibility for each other. Northway pointed out that tuition costs complicate the issue for students.



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