Thursday, November 29, 2007

Students rally for rights @ EKU

Photo by Jessica House

Groups promote domestic benefits on campus

Domestic partner benefits has been a heavily-debated subject throughout the year both in Kentucky and throughout the nation. Legislators and citizens have butted heads concerning the possible ramifications of such policies, as well as misconceptions of what domestic partner benefits are.

...The topic reached Eastern Tuesday as students representing various groups, such as the Women's Studies Program and the Pride Alliance, gathered to petition and call for change on campus. "Our Web site claims we can have it all," said Zana Durbin, vice president of the Pride Alliance. "That's what we're asking for."

The event began on Powell corner earlier in the day as students stood outside in the cold passing out fliers and holding signs presenting the argument that equal rights was a necessity at Eastern.

Durbin said the project began in a class with only eight people, but grew exponentially once the Pride Alliance and her professor, who belongs to the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, got involved. As word spread, other groups, such as Student Government Association and the Honors Program, joined and the project gained legs leading to a proposal the groups recently pitched to Eastern President Doug Whitlock, Durbin said. "It's been kind of a grassroots movement that's spread," she said.

The rally in the ravine boasted five speakers representing different departments who all said domestic benefits are key for Eastern to grow as a university.

Richard Freed, a professor in the English department, said he was on the Board of Regents in 2000 when the faculty senate voted for equal benefits on campus, but the proposal was tabled and pushed aside. "I was told by our current president at the time, Hanley Funderburk, that it was too expensive and it (basically disappeared)," he said. ...

Meg Gunderson, a professor of English, theatre and women studies, spoke on how the refusal of Eastern to address domestic benefits is blatant discrimination. She said the faculty senate was ready in 2000 to make it law, but the administration was not ready.

...In addition to the speakers, people were encouraged to sign a petition that would be presented to Whitlock. Durbin said Whitlock was intrigued by their proposal, which also included the past documents from 2000 and UK's domestic partner plan.

Durbin said Whitlock promised to present the issue to the Board of Regents in the future.

This from Marty Finley at the Eastern Progress.
The following is the text of the speech delivered by Meg Gunderson who teaches in both the Dept. of English and Theater and the Dept. of Women’s Studies at Eastern:

Equality and Common Sense

Thank you to all of you for being here to support bringing benefits to all, not just some, EKU employees. Thank you to Jerry Thomas, professor of Minority Politics in our Dept. of Govt for encouraging this class project. Thank you to all the students involved in the project.

Today, I am of two minds: I am excited, I am troubled.
One: I am thrilled that we are here together to bring benefits equally to all EKU employees and their partners, regardless of with whom they may live… and regardless of whom they may love. At this moment, in this ravine, is this group of people who support equal benefits, equal access to health insurance, equal access to health care, equal access to a dentist visit, equal access to an eye exam, equal access to an antibiotic, equal access to a pap smear, and equal access to an x-ray.

I am glad we are here today; but I said I was of two minds: I am excited, I am troubled.
It is remarkable that we need to be here at all. Why would EKU choose to exclude some employees and their families from equal benefits? This issue is not a decision to make, nor a policy to consider, nor a debate in which to engage. Rather, treating each EKU employee equally is, quite simply, common sense.

We are at an institution of higher education, a place that values critical thought, that encourages the use of logic; yet, ironically, that same set of institutional values promotes a discriminatory policy. To knowingly and to willfully exclude any member of EKU’s staff or faculty from access to the same benefits offered to other employees and their families is discriminatory. A choice to exclude is a choice to discriminate.

Yet, I argue there should be no choice, nor debate. Instead, EKU’s administration must simply use common sense. Five years ago, EKU’s Faculty Senate recognized that some EKU staff and some EKU professors were prevented from insuring their partners, their loved ones, their children.

Imagine a room: a large, open space with beautiful woodwork on the walls, and soft leather chairs. In that room is a long table at which are seating 20 EKU employees, all of whom are respected, hard-working members of our community. Some of those employees clean classrooms, some cook food, some update software, and some of them teach students. Again, all 20 are respected, hard-working members of our community. Now imagine a policy that tells some of this group that their families are not covered by our insurance plans. Would you not ask, why?

Let’s examine what possible reasons we might be offered to explain why only some of those 20 wonderful, diligent employees should not have equal benefits when, after all, they perform equal work, and they perform that work equally well. Why should we discriminate against these employees?

Reason One: The bottom line. Money. To offer more people benefits costs more money. True. Yet, in a group insurance plan that already covers thousands, how much more cost is it to insure a few more? Very little. Three studies cited by the Human Rights Campaign all show that total benefits cost raised less than 2%, with most going up less than 1%, when an employer offered domestic partner benefits.

While there may be modest monetary cost to offer benefits to all, a lack of equal treatment of all EKU employees is greater. It is common sense that discrimination is more costly than equal benefits for all at EKU. What other reasons might our EKU
administrators offer to explain why we should not treat all employees equally?

Reason Two: Blame the insurer. Our administration may claim that EKU cannot cover domestic partners of EKU employees because the group insurance policy we now have does not include the term, “domestic partner.” Thus, it is not EKU, but rather our insurer, Anthem, that discriminates against some EKU employees and their families because Anthem does not offer coverage to domestic partners.

Could we use common sense to resolve this issue? Yes. EKU could insist that Anthem revises its group policy language to include the term, “domestic partner,” as it defines those included in the group coverage. What if Anthem’s corporate policy is discriminatory and denies coverage to some employees of groups it insures?

Could we use common sense to resolve this issue? Yes. Find another insurer. Yet, our administration may argue such a change would involve too much work. Perhaps they might even invoke reason one again – cost. The cost of labor either to change
our policy or our insurer is too expensive; to which I respond again: the cost of discrimination is more costly than equal benefits.

Reason Three: Now, we start digging more deeply as we mine the ethical consciousness of our institution. EKU administrators may argue that domestic partner benefits is such a contentious issue, that to offer equal benefits to an employee’s domestic partner would insult the beliefs of some EKU students and their families, let alone some of the alumni of EKU. There is no need to mince words here, so I label the most significant reason why domestic partner benefits are not
supported at EKU: fear of homosexuality and a belief that the only “right”sexuality is heterosexuality.

When we hear the term, domestic partner, many attribute it to a lesbian or gay couple.

This brings us to Reason Four: The slippery slope: if we acknowledge the right for lesbians and gays to have equal benefits, then before long, we will be forced to acknowledge their right to be married. We may even have to acknowledge the equal rights of bisexual and transgendered people, too. The equal rights of any citizen should be obvious. If EKU’s administration posits that offering benefits to a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered family is too upsetting to the beliefs of some members of the EKU community is, then it avoids the issue: to exclude any employee at EKU from equal benefits is an exclusionary and discriminatory policy.

Our EKU administration, in providing equal benefits to all employees and their families, regardless of with whom they live… or whom they love, can and should use common sense to end this discrimination.

In March of 2000 (seven years ago!) the Faculty Senate used common sense. It put forth a motion to bring equal benefits to all who work here at EKU. Every vote cast supported the proposal. None voted against it. Yet, the administration did not push it through, rather it chose to wait, it chose to deny equal benefits, it chose to discriminate against some employees and their families.

The entirety of the Faculty Senate in 2000 recognized that to offer equal benefits is common sense.

Given the administration stalled in 2000, we are brought to Reason Five: Wait. Now is not he time. If this logic were used in the past with other movements for equality,
we would be a very straight, very male, and very white institution. If EKU said wait to earlier movements for equality, this University would close its doors to students who are female, who are latino, who are asian, who are black, and to students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered. If choosing not to discriminate against EKU students is common sense, then it is also common sense not to discriminate against EKU employees.

Thus far, I provide you with arguments that stem from our institution, and our space in eastern Kentucky. Let’s expand our view and look at some of our neighbors.

Not only is treating all employees equally common sense, it is also common practice. Other institutions of higher education in KY (not to mention many universities in other states) recognize the rights of all employees to have equal benefits, and they include: Univ. of KY, Univ. of Louisville, Berea College and Centre College. EKU can and should join this list; it is an issue of common sense.

Furthermore, should we look beyond the realm of academia, there are nearly 350 corporations that offer equal health benefits for domestic partners listed in the 2008 Corporate Equality Index compiled by the Human Rights Campaign (

If these institutions openly recognize the equal rights to benefits of all employees, why would EKU deny equal benefits?

I hope that soon, I will no longer be of two minds. I hope that soon, I will feel included in this community, rather than excluded simply because I am a lesbian. I want to feel that EKU will recognize my rights, my partner’s rights, and the rights of all my co-workers here at EKU.
After all, domestic partner benefits is common sense.

It is also an issue of common humanity. Treating EKU’s employees equally is an issue of equal human rights. Should an EKU administrator hear my words today, or look me in the eyes, I hope they see a human, a professor, a mentor, a worker deserving of the same benefits as other workers at EKU.

In this moment, EKU can uphold our role as a university that engages in critical thought, and logical decisions, or it can remain mired in outdated policies that maintain discriminatory practices.

Today, I offer a challenge to EKU. Be a force for change. Do not discriminate. Embrace equality. Show every employee at EKU that when they do equal work, they deserve equal benefits.

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