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Feb. 25, 2010 Volume 31, No. 21

Faculty Council discusses partner benefits, 'family friendly' campus

Equal access

Issue is one of fairness, proponents say

Calling it “contrary to a sense of human fairness,” a resolution discussed Feb. 18 by MU’s Faculty Council took a first step in expanding the University of Missouri’s current benefits policy, which does not provide benefits to an employee’s domestic partner unless they are married.

Members began discussing the resolution, which was proposed by the council’s diversity enhancement committee. Leah Cohn, that committee’s chair and professor of veterinary medicine and surgery, said the proposal would help level the playing field between employees.

For instance, one employee in a department currently would be able to enroll a spouse of the opposite sex in such University benefit programs as health insurance and tuition reduction, Cohn said, while another employee in the same department would not have that option available for a same-sex domestic partner.

Because of the current policy, “University of Missouri may be less able to attract and retain the best faculty and staff,” the resolution says, and adds “the Faculty Council of the University of Missouri’s flagship campus strongly recommends that same-sex partners of active University employees be allowed access to all of the same rights, privileges and benefits to which opposite-sex spouses currently are entitled.”

The council plans to vote on the resolution in the coming weeks. If they approve it, the resolution would then be forwarded to UM System leadership. Because human resources policies affect all four UM campuses, any policy change would have to be approved by the Board of Curators. Cohn said that the faculty council at UM-St. Louis already has approved a similar resolution.

Several council members asked why the resolution focuses only on same-sex partners and does not mention opposite-sex domestic partners who choose not to marry for whatever reason. Cohn said her committee had discussed that option at length.

“The difference is, with opposite-sex domestic partners there is at least the possibility of marrying,” she said. In Missouri, state law forbids same-sex marriage.

Cohn acknowledged that if the University ultimately changes the policy, it will have to develop a system by which employees can prove domestic partnership. She said her committee looked at how other universities handle that issue. Some require a couple to have lived together for a year, or require the couple to have “integrated financial and emotional lives,” she said.

“Different institutions have different ways of proving it,” Cohn said. “It won’t be as easy as slapping down a marriage license, because there isn’t one. There are plenty of institutions we can use as a template.”

Council member Bill Wiebold, professor of agronomy, asked if the committee had looked into the option of an “employee plus one” benefit plan. Under that type of plan, an employee would have the option of extending his or her benefits to one other individual, who would not have to be a family member or a domestic partner. “That way you don’t have to go through all the proofs,” Wiebold said.

Her committee is continuing to talk about that option with the benefits office, Cohn said, “but that’s a separate issue.”

Right now, the priority is to extend benefits to domestic partners, she said. More than 300 U.S. colleges and universities offer domestic partner benefits, she said, and 51 of the 62 Association of American Universities members offer full domestic partner benefits while others are exploring the possibility.

Asked about the cost of expanding those benefits, Cohn said her committee’s research found that 64 percent of employers who provide those benefits see their costs go up by 1 percent or less; 88 percent of employers see an increase of 2 percent or less.  

Cohn said her committee asked UM’s Faculty and Staff Benefits office for a cost estimate to provide medical insurance to same-sex domestic partners. The UM System currently spends a total of nearly $150 million a year on employee health care.

If the University experienced a 2 percent increase in medical costs, that would translate into an additional $3 million annually. Because employees pay approximately 27 percent of that cost through premiums and co-payments, the estimated cost increase to the University would be $2.2 million annually.

Cohn also updated Faculty Council on two other issues the diversity enhancement committee is working on. The first issue calls on MU to explore ways to make this a more “family friendly” campus and suggests that Chancellor Brady Deaton form a family friendly task force.

There are a number of ways Mizzou could make the campus more welcoming to faculty, staff and students who have to balance family responsibilities with their jobs and academic lives, she said.

For instance, there are few places on campus where a nursing mother can pump breast milk for her infant. Affordable child care could be more accessible on campus. There is no uniform policy for students to take make-up tests when they have to care sick family members. A family friendly task force could explore those and other issues.

“The same sort of things apply to faculty and staff,” Cohn said. “There may be some things that are very simple and inexpensive to do. There are other things that will not be simple to do to improve the situation for families of all types.”

The committee also is looking into ways the administration might better coordinate reports of sexual harassment, she said. Currently, there are many campus offices through which sexual harassment can be reported, but they don’t necessarily interact closely with each other.

One possibility might be to channel such complaints through one central clearinghouse, such as the MU Equity Office. That office then could produce an annual report that attempts to identify patterns in the harassment complaints. “Collecting data would be a starting point,” Cohn said.

Several council members questioned whether a decentralized reporting structure might give people more options as to when and where they file a harassment report. “It’s important that we don’t interfere and weaken the process,” Wiebold said.

“We’re not talking about altering the handling (of harassment complaints) at all,” Cohn said.

In other action Feb. 18, Faculty Council:

  • Voted to allow transfer credit for some military coursework if the veteran has received an honorable discharge.
  • Were told that Lori Franz, professor of management, has been appointed to a second five-year term as the campus faculty athletics representative. Her duties in that position include promoting and ensuring academic integrity, student-athlete welfare and institutional control of intercollegiate athletics.