LINCOLN — At age 61, Stephen Baenziger says he is “immensely thankful” for his 26-year career at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a career that put him at the forefront of wheat research around the world.
Preparing for the next generation is a major focus for Baenziger's remaining working years before he retires. Yet with UNL lacking employment benefits for domestic partners, he said, he would hesitate to recommend his job to a potential successor who lived with a gay partner.
The University of Nebraska Board of Regents voted 5-3 Friday to extend health care and other benefits to the unmarried partners — heterosexual or homosexual — of NU employees.
Baenziger was among those who testified in support of the new benefits.
“As a professor you should be free to be who you are,” Baenziger said. “I have students, I have esteemed colleagues who would be benefited by this program. I believe the core of this university would benefit by this program.”
The new benefits, which begin Jan. 1, will allow employees to add unmarried partners to NU health, dental and vision insurance coverage. They also may participate in NU's reduced tuition program for dependents. To qualify, employees must share a household and finances with their partners.
Regent Jim McClurg of Lincoln, who voted in favor of the new benefits, said the move was necessary to keep NU competitive.
UNL is the only Big Ten institution that lacks the benefit. Universities in 30 states, including the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa, offer domestic-partner benefits, as does Iowa state government and several major employers in Omaha.
“We should not be the last institution to cross this bridge of fairness,” McClurg said. “If every chancellor (of NU's four campuses) and our president wants us to pass this proposal, I'm going to do so enthusiastically.”
Several regents, however, said their constituents overwhelmingly opposed the proposal. Regent Bob Phares of North Platte, who voted against it, said 99 percent of constituents who contacted him opposed the move.
“I'm not willing to accept the premise that we're a second-class institution because we do not have this, or that we will become a second-class institution if we don't have it in the future,” he said.
The issue comes at a time when city leaders in Omaha and Lincoln have wrestled with proposals to protect gay and transgender people from discrimination. Omaha narrowly passed an ordinance in March. Lincoln passed its ordinance in May, but opponents gathered enough petition signatures to force the issue to a public vote.
Some of the people who fought the Lincoln ordinance also urged the regents to vote against the proposed benefits.
Dave Bydalek, a former assistant attorney general who serves as executive director of Family First, told the regents that he believed the partnership benefits conflict with Nebraska's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
Hannah Buell, a recent UNL graduate who works with the Nebraska Family Council, said the provision sends a wrong message to students — that “sexual relations without a lifelong commitment are just as beneficial as other relationships.”
Family First and the Nebraska Family Council led the petition drive to put the Lincoln ordinance on the ballot.
Jim Cunningham, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, testified on behalf of Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln and Bishop William Dendinger of Grand Island. In a joint letter, the three bishops said they were concerned about the moral, social and cultural implications of the proposal.
“In attempting to raise cohabitation to the equivalent status of marriage, the proposal says, in effect, that marriage does not matter,” Cunningham said.
NU President J.B. Milliken cited an outside legal opinion, obtained at the request of the board, which concluded that providing the benefits does not amount to a sanction of same-sex marriage.
“It is clear to me that this is important for competitiveness purposes,” Milliken said. “But there is a more important reason to do it. It is the right thing to do for our employees. It is the right thing to do to treat employees equitably and not discriminate against some of them.”
David Lechner, vice president of business and finance for NU, estimated that the provision would cost $750,000 to $1.5 million per year, with employees paying 16 percent of the premium cost.
The provision could quickly pay for itself, he said. Just one researcher attracted to NU by the benefit could generate more grant dollars than the provision will cost.
“I feel I owe you my best business judgment,” he said. “I choose to look at this issue from a business lens. If I approached you with an initiative and told you the cost would be $750,000 with likelihood of a severalfold return, an initiative oriented to make us more competitive, I believe you would jump on that initiative.”
Speakers who supported the measure included UNL sociology professor Helen Moore. She spoke emotionally of working 33 years for UNL with family benefits unavailable to her partner of 37 years.
She said her department has lost top candidates for jobs because young people look at domestic partner benefits as a measure of a campus's diversity and inclusiveness.
She and her partner cannot afford both health insurance and contributions to a retirement plan, Moore said, so she does cleaning jobs on weekends and evenings to make ends meet. That has cut into her productivity as a scholar, she said.
“The cost of living and working at UNL are very high,” Moore said.
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