Monday, January 01, 2007

Update on Debate Over Domestic Partner Benefits at Kentucky Universities

Boy, that headline sure is a grabber, isn't it? I tried to come up with something funny to say, but as our flagship universities and the more conservative population of our state seem destined (doomed) to duke it out over this flashpoint issue in the culture wars, I'm running out of ways to make light of the issue.

Twice before I've written about the possibility of the major state universities in Kentucky offering domestic partner benefits (see here and here). Now, the Lexington Herald Leader is reporting that the University of Kentucky seems closer than ever to offering domestic partner benefits to its employees, following the lead of both the University of Louisville and the private sector.

That's right, the private sector, often so loathe to part unnecessarily with the money needed for good benefits packages, has long taken the lead on this important social issue. As the Herald Leader article notes:

Domestic partner benefits are offered at several companies with a large presence in Kentucky, including Ashland Inc., Lexmark International Inc., UPS, Delta Air Lines, Ford Motor Co. and, according to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, a 600,000-member organization that works for equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Why? Because offering such benefits make these companies more competitive when it comes to hiring talent, a fact not lost on the state's universities. The Herald Leader article goes on to say:

If there is urgency on the part of UK to consider the benefits, its origin can be traced to the ambitious goal the legislature placed on the state's two largest universities in the higher education reform act of 1997. Lawmakers mandated that by 2020 UK should become a Top 20 public research university and U of L should become a preeminent metropolitan research university. The ramifications of these goals are many, but they definitely call upon the two schools to attract professors and researchers of greater stature.

Many UK faculty said the university cannot get the kind of people it wants unless it offers domestic partner benefits, either because a recruit will want the benefits available or because their availability will be a sign of a university with an open atmosphere that fosters change.

Of course, self righteous moralists are unfazed by such pragmatic appeals. Our good friend Stan Lee has, in keeping with the Republican party's rejection of traditional conservatism in favor of a view of government as supreme moral enforcer, " has prefiled a bill that would prohibit domestic partner benefits for same-sex and unmarried opposite-sex couples at all of Kentucky's eight public universities and 16 community colleges."

In his attempt to impose his personal moral views on state universities Lee is opposed by an unlikely crusader, possible Democratic candidate for governor and current Speaker of the House, Jody Richards. Richards his hardly progressive. Consider this damning comment from Mark Nicholas of

Richards is the longest serving speaker in Kentucky history, yet on his watch a woman has never ascended to leadership and only one of 16 committees is chaired by a woman. If Richards opts for a gubernatorial bid, he should heed the fact that 20% more Democratic women than Democratic men vote in primary elections and they'll certainly want to know why the legacy of their long-serving Democratic speaker is so woeful when it comes to putting women in leadership roles, especially considering how many Republican women have a seat at their table.

(For context, see this post)

Someone who can't be counted on to treat women as equal partners can hardly be expected to lead the crusade for LGBT equality. But at least Richards is a pragmatist, understanding that universities understand their own needs far better than politicians. He is quoted in Herald Leader article as saying, "I think it will be the position of the House that we do not micromanage the universities."

Regardless of where you stand on the personal moral issues involved, that is a sensible position. Universities are best run without constant interference from politicians, whose immediate political interests do not always (or even often) align with needs of academic institutions.


Update: 1-5-06

Jody Richards has finally appointed female committee chairs, naming:

Rep. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, chair of the House Judiciary Committee,

Rep. Tanya Pullin, D-Greenup, chair of Seniors and Military Affairs, and

Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Louisville, chair of Licensing and Occupations.

I, for one, can't speculate on his motives. I can just say that it is about time he recognized that women are fit for leadership. Now if only he'd stop saying that Intelligent Design shoud be taught in public schools alongside Evolution!

Anyway, he's finally on the right side of the women in leadership issue, and he's also on the right side of the Domestic Partner Benefits issue. But no one can claim that he's liberal, without sounding more than a little bit silly.

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