It took new curators and a new president for the University of Missouri system to end a decade-long debate and introduce a sexual orientation clause into its system-wide non-discrimination policies.
MU students, staff and faculty consider this a major victory after years of lobbying for rights for the gay and lesbian community.
Sexual orientation joins other protected categories such as race, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability and status as a Vietnam veteran.
“We’re overjoyed,” Carol Snively, MU assistant professor of social work, said later. “It’s long overdue.”
At a press conference held in Memorial Union Thursday morning, about 30 MU faculty, students and staff gathered to celebrate the new clause.
The 10 a.m. press conference took place about two hours after the UM System Board of Curators unanimously approved the amendment at its meeting in St. Louis. The change was made to employment and grievance policies for students and employees.
The decision does not affect health care coverage or other benefits provided through the UM system. Partners of gay and lesbian employees are not eligible for coverage.
Martha Pickens, executive staff assistant in Journalism Graduate Studies, told the gathering that gays and lesbians “are reluctant to share our lives, of course, because our ultimate fear is losing our job as a result of exposing our sexual orientation. Today, we have assurance from our employer that our sexual orientation is not a liability. Today, we are a step closer to realizing the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. — that is, to be judged by the content of our character in all we do.”
Julie Ditmars, a senior in social work, was involved in promoting the issue for about a year and a half. She said this sets a good example for other schools.
“Eight of the Big 12 schools already have it, so hopefully we can set another precedent and encourage the other schools to follow soon,” she said Thursday afternoon.
The issue was heavily debated for the past decade. In 1999, the curators decided not to use the words “sexual orientation” in a statement meant to provide a “positive work and learning environment.” Their decision followed former UM president Manuel Pacheco’s recommendation, who said it would violate state laws.
“The fight for inclusion has become, over the years, a tradition that students who are no longer here handed down to those of us who are here to carry on,” said Tiffany Ellis, a senior in journalism and former speaker of the Missouri Students Association Senate.
Using information from an online survey, Ellis collected opinions from gay and lesbian students at MU about the difference the specific language would make in their lives. She said they would feel safer on campus, less isolated and finally recognized as being fully human.
UM system spokesman Joe Moore said the current Board of Curators has a different mindset than the one in 1999. Another factor was Elson Floyd, the UM system president; faculty, staff and students approached him with this issue as soon as he took over in January.
Robin Cook, former student affairs chairman of the Missouri Students Association, the student government at MU, and a senior in journalism, said the university is just catching up to other universities in the nation.
“The most important thing to remember is that no matter what is said about this policy in the future, no matter what is written, this was not a groundbreaking decision,” he said.
Missouri Students Association said in a press release that the decision is a victory for all students regardless of their sexual orientation. The association recognizes the difference the decision can make in overall climate on campus, the release read.
The resolution was first thing on the agenda of the curators’ meeting and passed with no modifications or debate. Extra security was present, because of past protests over the issue. No protesters were at the 8 a.m. vote.
Floyd said healthcare coverage and other benefits for partners of gays and lesbians weren’t part of this discussion. This decision does not serve as a precursor for health or retirement changes in that vein, he said.
“Domestic partner benefits was not on the board’s agenda of items,” said Floyd.