Push for domestic partner benefits will need more than just majority vote, professor says

Christina Stavale

Faculty council will ask Lefton to separate benefits from proposed contract extension

When the administration offered domestic partner benefits to Kent State faculty a few weeks ago as part of a one-year contract extension, it wasn’t the first time the issue had been brought to the table.

In a panel discussion Friday, Molly Merryman, associate professor of justice studies, explained to students and faculty the history of domestic partner benefits at Kent State linked to majority rule.

“Whether the reason for withholding benefits and equality is fear of being first, fear of withholding of state moneys, fear of public opposition, fear of the Board of Trustees not agreeing, or fear of not getting either a strike vote or a vote for a collective bargaining contract,” she said, “all of the refusals of equality center on not having majority support.”

Most recently, in the one-year contract extension that would allow domestic partner benefits, a 3 percent wage increase and no increase to what faculty members pay for health insurance, a majority of the American Association for University Professors council voted against it, wanting a higher wage increase. The AAUP has also recommended that the faculty vote no.

Merryman said the AAUP will be asking President Lester Lefton sometime this week to separate the domestic partner benefits portion from the proposed contract extension.

This will be the first time during Lefton’s term as president that they will try to do this, and Merryman said she is hopeful he will comply, as he has already indicated his support of LGBT issues.

If this proposal is successful, Merryman said the AAUP has said they will vote in favor of domestic partner benefits.

She presented to the audience the other times the issue had been brought up either by the faculty or administration and failed to pass because a majority didn’t approve.

Merryman reminded the audience that “equality is never achieved by the popular vote.”

“In the 1800s, when slavery was abolished, the majority of Americans in the North and the South were opposed to that,” she said. “When the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution extended rights to African-American men, the majority of Americans were against it.”

She urged the administration and AAUP to look beyond the majority vote in securing minority rights.

At Youngstown State, for example, it was one department chair’s initiative that moved the university to act toward offering domestic partner benefits — not a wave of supporters’ action or the majority of the faculty’s vote.

Linda Tessier, professor of philosophy and religious studies at Youngstown State, whose family struggled because of the lack of domestic partner benefits, explained her university’s move toward offering benefits at the panel discussion.

When that department chair, who was a supporter of gay rights and friends with the board of trustees, made the initiative, the board met the night before the Nov. 2 election in 2004. It passed 5-4, before state voters passed Issue One, a same sex marriage ban.

“I wish I could tell you that it was smooth tactics on our part,” she said.

Before the university offered benefits, Tessier said students were also instrumental in bringing the issue to the surface, by writing letters to the student newspaper and faculty.

She urged Kent State students to do the same.

“Let them know that you’re concerned about the issue and that you’re thinking about it,” she said.

Merryman said she is concerned about the message Kent State is sending to students who may be struggling with coming out at a university that doesn’t offer domestic partner benefits to its faculty.

“When you see us being so passionately discriminated against, what kind of message does that send?” she asked. “I don’t think it’s a good one.”

Cheryl Casper, Faculty Senate chair and supporter of domestic partner benefits, added that not offering these benefits deters Kent State from offering the best faculty to its students.

Freshman exploratory major Richard Wesley, said he agrees that offering domestic partner benefits could lead to better and more satisfied faculty and a more LGBT-friendly climate at Kent State.

“They say they don’t discriminate, but they do discriminate,” he said. “Where does that leave us?”


1995: The administration indicated support of offering benefits, but feared backlash from the Board of Trustees and Ohio’s state representatives.

2001: Just after the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender studies minor was created, former President Carol Cartwright said she was concerned about being the first university to allow benefits.

Later that year, the possibility of domestic partner benefits was bargained away during negotiations because the majority of faculty didn’t consider domestic partner benefits to be a major issue.

It was then that Cartwright promised if another Ohio state university offered domestic partner benefits, Kent State would follow.

2004: Ohio voters passed Issue One, a same-sex marriage ban. Still, some universities began offering domestic partner benefits. Kent State did not follow.

2005: The LGBT Faculty Concerns Committee raised concern with former President Cartwright about not keeping her promise. She cited Issue One as the reason they did not.

2007: The university offered a one-year contract extension to the faculty that would allow domestic partner benefits, a 3 percent wage increase and no increase in health insurance cost. The majority of the AAUP faculty council voted against it.

SOURCE: Molly Merryman, Domestic Partner Benefits and the Problem with Majority Rule

Contact minority affairs reporter Christina Stavale at [email protected].