Domestic partner policies vary in Columbia higher education

Thursday, April 8, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA ­–  The MU Faculty Council’s pledge of support for same-sex domestic partner benefits made headline news in Columbia last month, but it’s not the first college in the city to take on the issue.

Health, dental and tuition reduction benefits have been extended to employees’ domestic partners, regardless of sex, at Stephens College since December of 2007, said Sara Fernandez Cendon, media relations manager at Stephens.

“At first it sort of went unnoticed,” she said. “If anything, it was just a welcome change to those who benefited from it.”

Stephens started offering domestic partner benefits when the college switched insurance providers to United Healthcare.

“United does have a domestic partner clause, and we were finally in a situation with our health insurance company that allowed us to extend benefits to domestic partners,” Fernandez Cendon said.

At Stephens, the designation "domestic partners" refers to same-sex or opposite-sex partners, as long as they are able to fill out a college-supplied Affidavit of Domestic Partnership as proof of their relationship, she said.

Late last year, MU Equity began gathering data on whether the lack of domestic partner benefits affects hiring and retention. The assumption, Director Noel English said at the time, was that the policy was keeping candidates away.

While unable to point to specific instances where the issue has affected hiring at Stephens, Kim Schellenberger, associate director of human resources, says it has come up.

“It seems to have helped with recruiting,” she said. “Some possible employees have inquired about it, and they seem pleased that it’s a benefit we offer.”

At Columbia College, all questions regarding employee benefits at the historically conservative college were directed to Senior Director of Public Relations Joanne Tedesco. “We follow the guidelines outlined by the state of Missouri,” Tedesco said.

Although neither she nor college human resources staffers would elaborate, a State of Missouri official explained the general guidelines as they apply to state employees.

“Missouri law only recognizes marriages between a man and a woman,” said Lori Simms, public information officer for the Office of Administration. “A spouse of the same sex is not an eligible dependent.”

While this issue has identified areas of dissent in Columbia, employers around the U.S. have also been dealing with this topic. A report compiled by the Pride and Equity Faculty/Staff Association at the University of Texas-Austin provides some context on the issue.

The report said that around the nation, 304 colleges and universities, including all eight Ivy League schools, offer at least some benefits to employees’ domestic partners. A total of 9,374 employers offer such benefits, the report said.

This discussion about domestic partner benefits at colleges and universities adds to local conversation about domestic partner rights. In April 2009, the Columbia City Council voted unanimously to create a domestic partner registry, which provides legal documentation of the partnership and stipulates that domestic partners be treated the same as married couples at city-owned recreational and other facilities.

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K Weber April 8, 2010 | 7:59 a.m.

It's amazing that Stephen's is more progressive and promotes and supports diversity more than MU. STEP UP MU! Domestic partner benefits should be for everyone - not just same sex couples!

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