Oakland U moves forward on DP benefits

'Institutions can learn and grow'

By Jason A. Michael

ROCHESTER -

Oakland University has come one step closer to restoring domestic partnership benefits to LGBT employees, though that won't be what they're called and there's no set date for their restoration. However, with the revision of OU Administrative Policy #712 they are mandated, and with that there is cause for hope.

Put in place Oct. 29, just 11 days after the tragic suicide on campus of Corey Jackson, Oakland's new policy has been a long time in the making.

"At the time of Corey's death, the final draft was in place and was in the process of being reviewed by the various administrative bodies prior to its final adoption," said Timothy Larrabee, the chair of Oakland's LGBT employee resource group. "That final review process was, indeed, expedited in response to the tragedy on campus; however the text of the policy was finalized before that fateful day."

The policy states that "all faculty and staff and applicants for those positions, students and applicants for enrollment, and visitors to the university shall be treated with respect, courtesy and dignity, be valued and supported in a nurturing and welcoming campus community, have their differences celebrated, and collaboration, cooperation and understanding fostered among all persons."

Further, the policy states that those goals will be manifested by "providing equitable rights, privileges, opportunities, treatment, resources, services, participation, access and benefits to all persons through the development, formulation and implementation of university programs, policies, procedures, practices and contractual and other commitments."

Shea Howell, a professor at Oakland and longtime Between The Lines contributor, expressed relief at the policy's implementation. "This has been a very long effort and should be celebrated as a sign that institutions can learn and grow," Howell said.

The non-discrimination policy specifically lists sexual orientation, as well as gender identity and gender expression, and means that LGBT employees are entitled to the same rights and benefits as their straight counterparts. Most major universities in the state, including Oakland, offered domestic partner benefits until a few years ago. In 2004, Michigan voters passed Proposition 2, which called for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman. A lawsuit filed shortly after by the ACLU and Michigan Equality called for clarification on the DP issue and Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Joyce Draganchuk ruled in 2005 that the constitutional amendment did not impact domestic partner benefits.

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox appealed this ruling, however, and in 2007 the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that the state's marriage amendment prohibited public employers from offering domestic partner benefits. The ruling was upheld the following year by the Michigan Supreme Court.

Not long after, universities across the state began looking for a way to circumvent the ruling.

"The Michigan Supreme Court said that universities can offer benefits to domestic partners of LGBT employees, they just can't recognize that relationship as the basis for wanting to do so," explained Jay Kaplan of the ACLU-Michigan's LGBT Legal Project. "So many universities have said, 'OK, we can't recognize these relationships as the basis for these benefits, but we're going to create an eligibility category that might end up including this group of people' and that's what we're seeing at Oakland as well."

This means that instead of using the term "domestic partner," universities now often simply state "spouse or other eligible person" or use some such other more neutral wording.

The next step is for Oakland's board of trustees to approve a revised equal opportunity statement, which will likely be taken up at the board's December meeting. The university will have to adopt legal language, as well, that meets the new policy's criteria without violating the law.

"The hope is that this will go in pretty quickly as a policy change because the idea is that this is a values statement," said Howell. "This is an over-arching values-driven statement that will drive policy and we expect this to be adopted by the board right away."

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