UTK has experienced quite a hailstorm of bad press over the past couple of weeks. While I don't intend to resurrect those event(s) that we would all rather forget, one issue as of late does deserve a nod. Last week, the media sphere exploded with outrage regarding UT's official position concerning benefits for the unmarried partners of UT faculty. The UT Faculty Senate passed a resolution last spring that called for benefits in family health care, time off to care for family members, and education credits on par with those received by married couples.
Largely in response to the Faculty Senate's resolution, Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and UT Institute of Agriculture Chancellor Larry Arrington issued a joint statement rejecting the call for equal benefits, stating, "We hope you understand that in our positions as leaders of an agency of the State of Tennessee, it is incumbent upon us to act consistently with the public policy of our state."
This is troubling on a number of accounts.
First, it's important to understand the gravity that a decision like this can have on someone's life and prospects. Health benefits for a life partner deals, obviously, with matters of life and death in some cases, and revoking those benefits from some individuals simply due to their sexual orientation is an issue that cannot be taken lightly.
With this in mind, it's easy to see how the justification for rejecting these benefits provided in the joint statement is frustrating, especially for those affected. Rather than providing a detailed and thorough justification, the statement glosses over the issue with ambiguity. Offering "(consistency with) the public policy of our state" as a justification opens as many questions as it provides answers. Which of the state's many tangential policies is most relevant with regard to the issue? What about the university's non-discrimination clauses? How much power does an institution of higher education have in shaping its own benefits policy? What would be the consequences if it did so? I could go on and on.
What makes this edict even harder to swallow is that it was delivered amid UT's campus-wide diversity and civility efforts. Professing that UT is committed to being an inclusive community open to all, while simultaneously discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, leaves students wondering how committed to civility the university truly is.
One could raise the objection that, no matter what they themselves prefer, the hands of Cheek and Arrington are tied. This is a fair point in some ways. Even legal experts could plausibly come to disagreements regarding the power of the chancellors in setting the policy autonomously, but the evidence is not exactly in Cheek and Arrington's favor.
As highlighted by a response letter on behalf of UT's Commission for LGBT People, a number of peer institutions have done exactly what UT won't. The letter argues, "With Georgia added, more than 85 percent of our Top 25 peer and aspirational public universities now offer domestic partner benefits. Further, every Ivy League school and more than 10,000 businesses across the nation have stepped up. We cannot continue to expect to compete if we are not going to match our competitors." The most salient example is that of the University of Florida, where domestic partners are offered benefits despite the fact that the state defines marriage in heterosexual terms.
While we can't be certain about how much power the Chancellor really has in making this call, a more thorough dialogue and justification should be provided, at the very least.
— Eric Dixon is a senior in philosophy. He can be reached at email@example.com.