Thursday, December 14
Progressive gains on election day offered little consolation to gay rights activists who watched as seven states overwhelmingly approved amendments defining marriage as a one-man, one-woman institution. Though Arizona voters made their state the first to reject such a measure–by a slim 2 percent margin–the results elsewhere confirmed that gay marriages and domestic partnerships that resemble marriage, even heterosexual ones, are still a difficult and divisive issue for the U.S. population.
The bitter effects of these marriage amendments are clearly visible on campuses of public universities, where the issue of domestic partner benefits–or the lack thereof–has begun to upset the progressive climate of academia. As lawsuits challenge public employers’ rights to provide domestic partnership benefits and state legislatures concur, some professors are choosing to leave their institutions, and some outraged students are speaking out.
University of Wisconsin students have an especially valid reason to be concerned about the language recently added to their state’s constitution. Its prohibition of ” a legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals,” could jeopardize the university’s efforts to secure domestic partner benefits for its employees–an ongoing battle that had previously faced tough opposition from the state legislature. Indeed, in states that passed similar amendments in 2004, the legality of offering these benefits to public employees has been challenged in court and by state officials on the grounds that the policies now run contrary to state constitutions. This is bad news for public universities, not only in Wisconsin but also in states like Virginia, Ohio, and Michigan, where voters have ratified similar amendments. Faced with uphill legal battles and a lack of state support, some professors choose to simply leave.
“It scares me to think that we might see some of our most prized researchers leave this system,” Christopher Semanas, a senior at UW-Parkside and a member of the state university system’s Board of Regents, told Campus Progress. He added that the lack of benefits impacts faculty recruiting: Candidates increasingly seek partner benefits, and UW-Madison is the only Big Ten school that doesn’t offer them. Semanas believes this policy puts UW at a disadvantage, and that, ultimately, students pay the price. For this reason, the UW Regents came out publicly against the amendment.
To an administration, faculty, and student body that had mounted such a strong opposition to the amendment, the results on Nov. 7 appeared to be a final blow to their progressive ideals. On the Friday after the election, University chancellor John Wiley held a town hall forum to discuss possible next steps, but by then, many faculty members were already planning to move on. Several professors and staff, including mathematics professor Concha Gomez, announced they would seek employment elsewhere, presumably at an institution where employee benefits weren’t regulated by an unfriendly state legislature.