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Benefit Doubts

ASU doesn't offer tuition reduction or health benefits for the partners of its homosexual staff. Most other Pac-10 schools do. What gives?

 by Chelsea Ide  published on Thursday, September 15, 2005

/issues/arts/693851
On the cover
 
“What’s really bothering and frustrating is that other public entities can do it, but because of purely political reasons [ASU] can’t,” says Casey Self, an ASU staff member./issues/arts/693851
Shaina Levee / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
“What’s really bothering and frustrating is that other public entities can do it, but because of purely political reasons [ASU] can’t,” says Casey Self, an ASU staff member.
 
<em>Photo illustration</em>/issues/arts/693851
Shaina Levee / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Photo illustration
 

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Sarah* has worked at ASU for more than 15 years. She's been presented with awards by both the university and professional organizations for her dedication to her department. Yet, the woman in the office next door has two benefits from ASU that Sarah says she fears she may never have: health benefits and tuition waivers for her family.

The difference between Sarah and her office neighbor is that Sarah is a lesbian and her partner is the biological mother of their two children.

"I'm their mom, but because ASU doesn't recognize my family they are punished," says Sarah, who works for the University.

Defining Family

The current Arizona Board of Regents policy allows "employees, their spouses and dependent children" a reduction in tuition. Sarah's children, if she could marry her partner or adopt them, would pay 25 percent of in-state tuition no matter how many credit hours the student takes.

ASU made changes to its policy language to be more inclusive of domestic partners shortly after Michael Crow became president of the University, roughly three years ago, says Casey Self, a member of Ubiquity -- the faculty and staff group dedicated to supporting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues.

"I think ASU has done everything it can," says Self, executive director of the Center for Academic Advising. "Now, it's a matter of changing Board of Regents policy and Arizona state law."

The major hurdle stopping tuition waivers for partners and children of lesbian and gay faculty and staff is the way the Arizona Department of Administration defines family, he says.

ADOA currently defines family as a "spouse, natural child, adopted child, foster child, stepchild, natural parent, stepparent, adoptive parent, grandparent, grandchild, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, sister-in-law, brother-in-law, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, mother-in-law or father-in-law."

Because this language doesn't allow for gay and lesbian couples, who are unable to marry under Arizona law, ASU is restricted in what it can do, he says.

Governor Janet Napolitano has the authority to change the language if she so decides, but Self says he could understand her hesitation in an election year with Arizona's political climate.

State policy language didn't stop the University of Arizona in Tucson from starting to offer same-sex domestic partners tuition breaks in Fall 2005. This made UA the first of Arizona's three universities to offer this to domestic partners and children of those partners.

"The exclusion of same-sex domestic partners from this program [tuition reduction] is detrimental to the university's ability to attract and retain the most qualified employees without regard to their household arrangements, and is inequitable to employees who cannot marry their domestic partners," says an announcement released by UA President Peter Likins in July 2005.

Likins says that by offering tuition reduction UA is slowly closing the benefits gap between his university and employers offering health care coverage, tuition reduction or combinations of the two.

"As it stands, the UA is in the distinct minority," Likins writes.

ASU is in the minority, too. Last year, 289 institutions offered health benefits to domestic partners of employees, says the annual "The State of the Workplace for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Americans" report complied by the Human Rights Campaign.

The majority of the nation's 50 top universities, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, offer health benefits to partners of gay and lesbian faculty and staff, the report says.

"What's really bothering and frustrating is that other public entities can do it, but because of purely political reasons [ASU] can't," Self says, shaking his head.

Maricopa County Community Colleges, the cities of Phoenix, Tempe and Scottsdale and America West Airlines provide health care for faculty and staff members' domestic partners and their children.

Self and Sarah say they both know ASU faculty and staff who have left the university to work at one of the Maricopa County colleges, because it was best for their families.

Self says he doesn't have any intention of leaving, because he loves ASU and his job at the school. After all, he's been at the University for 16 years. Still, he says he's hopeful ASU will fall in line with other colleges regarding domestic partner benefits.

"My partner is 11 years older than me, and I'd like for him to be able to retire," Self says, clasping his hands.

Self's partner also works for the state of Arizona as a social services case-worker, meaning neither has health insurance that covers the other. Doug, his partner, has only been at his current job a few years, not long enough to build a strong retirement package, Self says.

"It'd be huge for me if he could get health insurance through me," he says.

He says he just wants his partner to get to retire and, like everyone else, be able to rely on him.

Current Climate

Self says the climate changed when Crow joined ASU. "From the beginning, he seemed very supportive," he says. "A committee was supposed to be put together to figure how to get us [the LBGT staff and faculty] benefits."

But nothing ever came of it.

ASU has been on the forefront of the student lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender (LBGT) issues for the last few years. The administration was the first in the country to add "gender identity" to its policy against discrimination. The university also has a new lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender studies certificate program offered through the College of Public Programs, which Self helped create. However, ASU and UA are the only schools in the Pac-10 that don't offer health coverage for domestic partners.

"ASU is trying to recruit top-notch faculty, and this is what stops many of them," Self says.

That was UA's motivation for offering tuition waivers. "Universities are fighting for the best and brightest, and if you put stumbling blocks in the way of recruiting, people are not going to come here," Stuart Cohen, UA professor of public health and medicine, tells the Arizona Daily Star.

ASU can't independently offer its own health insurance benefits due to state law, says Terri Shafer, vice president of marketing and strategic communications.

Here the University has two options. The first is to work with the legislature to revise the regulations for health insurance. The other is to create an independent fund to purchase health insurance for those partners excluded by the state law, but Self says the University was looking at this a couple years ago, but nothing came of it.

The latter option may still be cost effective, as research by M.V. Lee Badgett of the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies found most employers who offer domestic partner benefits to same-sex partners find expenses rise no more than one percent.

ASU hasn't said if money is what is holding the University back from offering these benefits, but officials know gay employees want equal benefits.

"The University is aware of the range of issues facing domestic partners as well as families in general," says ASU Executive Vice President and Provost Milton Glick. "Given the flux in this arena, ASU intends to attempt to deal with these issues on an individual basis for the present as we study more global solutions. The president has designated Vice Provost Marjorie Zatz as the lead person to find individual accommodations."

Zatz took on this role six weeks ago, and it appears no one told those looking for benefits.

Self says if there was a way for his partner to take some classes now or to get health care, he'd get in line to fill out paperwork.

Reach the reporter at chelsea.ide@asu.edu.

*Editor's note: Due to the sensitive nature of this story, name has been changed by request.



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