How a Search Can Change an Institution

When U. of Louisville went after a top scientist, she asked about benefits for her partner. Now institution is first in Kentucky to offer them.
July 18, 2006

When the University of Louisville first started to recruit Gina Bertocci in 2004, she wasn't looking to move. A bioengineering professor at the University of Pittsburgh, she had a great job, a lab pulling in seven-figure grants and a partner who was doing a postdoc.

But Louisville doesn't give up easily. The university is pushing for increased national visibility -- particularly in science and technology. Bertocci's work focuses on tools that help children who have been the victims of child abuse and other physical injuries, and her lab is considered a leader in a field that combines child welfare, medicine, and engineering. So officials kept on coming back, offering her an endowed chair, a nice salary, help for her partner in locating a job. One day, Bertocci asked if her partner could be covered by domestic partner benefits and the officials recruiting her (academics, not HR folks) said that they assumed so, but would need to check.

As they found out, no such benefits existed for unmarried partners. Bertocci said she would make the move -- but only with the understanding that the university would move toward offering benefits for domestic partners, something no university in Kentucky had done. Last week, Louisville fulfilled its end of the deal, when its board adopted a domestic partner program. In fact, the human resources division at the university had been meeting with gay and lesbian faculty members previously to talk about benefits issues so there was already interest before Bertocci's recruitment.

Louisville trustees -- clearly aware of the state political environment -- stressed that they were not taking a stand on gay marriage or, in the words of one, "endorsing any lifestyle." Officials have stressed issues of fairness and of competitiveness.

Faculty members who worked on the issue said that once it got on the agenda, administrators were supportive and wanted to find ways to offer the benefit. The change won't cost the university much -- if any -- money. Louisville charges married employees a fee to have their spouses covered, and will apply the same rule to domestic partners. No one knows how many partners will be covered -- many of them have jobs with full benefits packages and won't opt for the plan. (Bertocci's partner works as a consultant, so the benefit will help her as she'll benefit from the university's group rate on good coverage.) Anita Moorman, an associate professor of education who was one of the faculty leaders on the issue, said that it could end up being as few as 20 employees who use the benefit.

"It was more of an equity and policy issue," Moorman said, than strictly a financial one. "If you look at the value of our compensation packages, they were simply different for married employees and non-married employees. We need those values to be the same," she said.

Beyond equity there is competition -- and that may be key in Kentucky and in other states that may be more socially conservative but that want their universities recruiting top scholars.

Only a distinct minority of colleges and universities offer domestic partner benefits. According to the Human Rights Campaign, the figure stood at 290 as of June 1, a number that has increased modestly over the years but that represents but a fraction of colleges. But the campaign also found that of the top 25 universities as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, 92 percent offer the benefits. That's the group Louisville wants to be in.

That competition matters is evident in Kentucky. The University of Kentucky also has goals to advance in national rankings. Prior to Louisville's announcement, Kentucky officials said that they had no plans to look at the issue of domestic partner benefits. Immediately after, Kentucky said it would look at the issue -- as part of a broad review of benefits at top public universities.

Bertocci is very happy in Louisville and with the university's decision. "If a university like this is expecting to compete for human resources, it needs to have a competitive compensation package, and for top universities that includes domestic partner benefits," she said. She's also doing what Louisville brought her in to do: Several of her graduate students have recently won national honors and she's moved more than $1 million in grant support to the university -- with more on the way.


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