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Uncovered

June 16, 2005

The University of Wisconsin at Madison's dean of students has announced that she is leaving the institution in part due to her frustration with the state's denial of domestic partner benefits for university employees.

Luoluo Hong is heterosexual and married, and thus not directly affected by the benefits policy. But in recent years, she has watched some of Wisconsin’s brightest faculty members and administrators walk out the door because of the lack of health insurance coverage for their domestic partners. In May, the state legislature’s Joint Finance Committee killed Gov. Jim Doyle’s recommendation to provide health coverage for all domestic partners of state employees. Now, Hong herself is opting for the exit, and will become dean of student affairs at Arizona State.

Hong was not available for comment Wednesday, but she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she has lost both job candidates, when they find out about the lack of coverage, and employees. "It’s very demoralizing for them," she said.

"Wisconsin faculty pay was not as high as private institutions," said Larry Wu, a sociology professor who cited benefits as one reason he left Wisconsin for New York University two years ago. "And when you factor in that I paid for health benefits out of pocket for my partner at the time, it was a considerable amount of money."

In 2000, Karen Ryker, a theater professor, wrote in her letter of resignation before leaving for the University of Connecticut: "Until the University of Wisconsin is able to offer such a benefit, my prediction is that they will continue to lose excellent faculty to institutions who have already made the leap."

One of Doyle’s staff members said that the governor proposed health care coverage for domestic partners partly because he worried that the state’s university system would fall behind peer institutions. According to the governor’s office, every other university in the Big Ten offers coverage for domestic partners.

The Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C., based advocacy group for gay people, reports that 37 of U.S. News and World Report’s top 50 institutions -- the University of Wisconsin at Madison is ranked 32nd -- offer coverage for domestic partners. The campaign does not survey the entire country, but representatives said they are currently aware of 290 institutions that offer coverage, up from only one in 1991 and 122 in 1999.

In Madison, the frustration extends beyond faculty members and administrators. When Yolande Chan, a microbiology graduate student, had to accompany her partner, Diane, for surgery, the pair flew to Ohio, where Diane has coverage through a business she started in Columbus. "We can’t afford to pay out of pocket here," Chan said. "It’s cheaper to spend a couple hundred dollars on the plane ticket." In an emergency situation, "I'd obviously take her in [to a Wisconsin hospital]. Thank goodness we haven’t encountered an emergency."

Hong, who admired what she saw as Wisconsin’s progressive tradition -- it was the first state to pass a law protecting gay people from discrimination and to elect an openly lesbian woman to Congress -- was disappointed by what she found, she told the Journal Sentinel. "That legacy has not been my experience,” she said.

 

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