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In an unprecedented move, the Santa Clara University Faculty Senate has voted to deem a recent health insurance policy change concerning abortion coverage “invalid.” It’s also demanding more faculty input on any future decision about coverage for non-medically necessary abortions.

“The term ‘invalid’ refers to the process by which [Rev. Michael Engh, university president] made the decision,” Juliana Chang, professor of English and a Faculty Senate president, said via email. “Faculty believe that our shared governance structure means that the president should consult the faculty prior to implementing major policy decisions.”

In October, Father Engh sent a letter to faculty and staff at the Jesuit institution saying he was ending health insurance coverage for “elective” abortions. Santa Clara was one of two Roman Catholic colleges in California to announce such a change this fall. The other was Loyola Marymount University.

Faculty at both institutions have raised concerns about both the ethical implications of the policy and the processes by which they were implemented. The initial announcement at Loyola Marymount was followed by a brief period for employee feedback, before its Board of Trustees approved the new policy after after thorough discussion. At Santa Clara, however, faculty members have said they were given no warning. (Note: This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version to correct the nature of the Board of Trustees vote.)

"Our commitments as a Catholic university are incompatible with the inclusion of elective abortion coverage in the university's health care plans," Father Engh wrote in his letter.

At Santa Clara, faculty concerns have prompted the university to delay the policy's taking effect by one year, to January 2015. In a November letter to faculty and staff, Father Engh wrote that while the decision remains “final,” the delay would allow a faculty benefits committee time to explore third-party coverage options for abortions. But the university will not pay for it.

Later that month, the Faculty Senate drafted a three-part resolution condemning the decision, in the absence of meaningful faculty input. 

All 627 faculty members were eligible to vote on the matter; voting ended last week. The section of the resolution to invalidate the new policy passed by a vote of 215 to 89. The section stating that the Senate would consider "further action" on the policy unless the Board of Trustees took action to reverse it passed by a vote of 202 to 102. A final section establishing a “Governance Committee” chaired by an outside academic to review the university’s operation of shared governance passed, 201 to 103.

Just as the nature of the vote was unprecedented, so was the turnout, Chang said. She attributed it to the “longstanding concern faculty on campus have for our system of shared governance.”

The next step for faculty is to take the resolution to the Board of Trustees for action. At Loyola Marymount, its Board of  Trustees already has implored the administration to include the Faculty Senate and several other shared governance bodies in discussions about abortion coverage in for 2015. But the policy stands for 2014.

The resolution states that the university “is committed to creating a diverse and inclusive academic community that respects distinct values, beliefs and opinions” and that “the university relies on a widely respected and robust shared governance structure in part to defend that commitment.” The American Association of University Professors also says major policy decisions should not be made without at least first consulting faculty, even at religious institutions.

Nancy Unger, a professor of history at Santa Clara, criticized made a similar argument in a recent  op-ed in The San Jose Mercury News.

“Santa Clara faculty and staff are not members of a Catholic parish,” she wrote. “They are employees of a large corporation. Many fear that this denial of comprehensive abortion coverage is part of a wider effort to allow private employers to impose their religious beliefs on employees, denying a raft of health care services from abortion and contraception to vaccines.”

Unger continued: “ ‘Father knows best’ is not a compelling argument here, especially when one man denies hundreds of women access to a procedure that he could never need. It's also no principle on which to run a university.”

In an interview, Unger said she voted for all three parts of the resolution, and that she hoped the administration saw the vote “as a sincere expression of the faculty’s concerns not just about abortion coverage but also real concerns about governance.”

Although Father Engh has met with faculty since the decision was announced to answer their questions and hear their concerns, both the abortion coverage issue and broader discussions about shared governance need to be “hammered out” in the year ahead, she said.

Some faculty members have additional legal concerns about the decision. Stephen Diamond, an associate professor of law who resigned from a a post at Santa Clara's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics earlier this fall, saying it had acted as an arm of the administration in organizing a forum to discuss the decision after it had been made, said it will impossible to enforce under state law.

"HMOs in California are regulated by a statute which includes a multi-factor test for whether abortion is legally necessary," Diamond said via email. "That test has long been interpreted to include all pre-viability abortions and so it is not possible for the university to institute the change the president has proposed."

Father Engh did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment about the faculty vote. A university spokeswoman did not return a request for comment.

Margaret Russell, professor of law and past president of the Senate, called the vote a “healthy and respectful step” in addressing the concerns raised by Father Engh’s October decision.

“I have a deep respect and regard for Santa Clara as a collegial and diverse intellectual and social justice community -- which is one of the reasons why I think the Faculty Senate vote is so significant,” she said via email. “The vote shows that there is enormous disagreement with both the insurance decision itself and the peremptory manner in which it was reached and announced.”

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