States largest public university excludes same-sex partner benefits
University of Texas at Austin lecturer Uri Horesh entered the third day of a hunger strike on Wednesday, Jan. 16, to draw attention to the lack of competitive employee benefits at the state’s largest public university, according to a statement released that day by the LGBT advocacy organization Equality Texas.
Horesh, a 37-year-old Arabic lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, wants the University to offer employee benefits, such as health insurance, to employees’ same-sex partners, according to the statement.
UT has acknowledged that employee benefit packages are critically important in the recruitment and retention of employees, faculty and staff, said Paul Scott, executive director of Equality
Texas, but he added that university officials insist their hands are tied by state law prohibiting recognition of same-sex partnerships.
“In order to attract and retain the most qualified faculty and staff, leading academic institutions are offering access to benefit plans that support the employee and members of the employee’s household,” Scott said. “If the University of Texas truly aspires to be a first-tier academic institution, it must be able to offer competitive employee benefit plans.”
The Equality Texas statement cited U.S. News and World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges 2008” that said 100 percent of the top 20 ranked national universities offer health insurance coverage to employees’ domestic partners. U.S. News’ “Top 20” listing includes Rice University in Houston, a private institution that offers employee benefits to same-sex and opposite-sex domestic partners.
Scott said most leading private colleges and universities in Texas already offer benefits programs that include domestic partners, and listed Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Southwestern University in Georgetown and Trinity University in San Antonio as being among those schools.
Scott said none of the state’s publicly funded colleges or universities offer benefits for domestic partners, but he suggested those schools could offer such benefits “without running afoul of Texas law.”
“While offering benefits only to same-sex domestic partners might be interpreted, however wrongly, by the Attorney General as a violation of Texas law, public colleges and universities could elect to offer employee benefits using an approach that does not mention marriage, unions or same-sex domestic partnerships,” said Scott. “In Kentucky and Michigan, states with recent constitutional amendments defining marriage similar to Texas, university benefit policies have been adopted that don’t distinguish between same-sex and opposite-sex living arrangements. Ultimately, it comes back to colleges and universities offering benefit plans that will enable them to compete for the best and brightest talent.”
Scott added, “It is truly unfortunate that an employee of this state’s flagship public academic institution has found it necessary to go on a hunger strike in order to shine a light on the lack of benefits that are otherwise available at every single one of this country’s top twenty universities. Equality Texas hopes the University of Texas will become the first public university in the state to offer competitive benefits to its employees, faculty and staff.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 18, 2008