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NDSU faculty, staff push for discount for same-sex partners of employees

FARGO -- Faculty and staff groups at North Dakota State University have proposed extending tuition breaks for spouses and children of employees to also include same-sex partners.

Pending approval from NDSU President Dean Bresciani, the expanded tuition benefit policy would add to a short list of institutional benefits the school can provide to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees and their partners short of offering health care, which is banned by North Dakota state law.

"We're aware there are limits," said Thomas Stone Carlson, who worked toward the change last year as faculty senate president. "We are trying to do what we can with our own policies that we have control over."

While those involved say only a handful of partners would take advantage of the 50 percent tuition discount, just having inclusive policies on the books sends a welcoming message to current and prospective LGBT faculty and staff.

"It means we consider LGBT faculty when we're making our policies," Stone Carlson said, adding that could convince a potential employee to accept a position at the school.

A few years ago, faculty and staff members helped change a university policy to make it easier for the partner of a gay NDSU employee to be hired at the school. Previously, those special hiring conditions only applied to the spouse of a new or recently hired employee.

Employees can also sponsor a partner for membership at the Wallman Wellness Center, regardless of marital status, and have access to a variety of counseling services through the Employee Assistance Program.

Health benefits for North Dakota public employees, including those at NDSU, are administered through the North Dakota Public Employees Retirement System. The system uses the state's definition of spouse -- "a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife" -- in determining benefit eligibility.

Like at NDSU, benefits for Minnesota State University Moorhead staff and faculty are managed through a system for state employees. It uses the state's definition of marriage to determine benefit eligibility for partners.

"When the marriage equality law passed, for our purposes, it changed the definition of a spouse," said Bill Brady, employee benefits director for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, which includes MSUM.

Since the law change went into effect Aug. 1, same-sex partners of state employees are eligible for benefits as long as they're legally married. Because Minnesota recognizes same-sex marriages from other states, some spouses were eligible as of midnight that day.

At neighboring Concordia College, the private school has elected to offer benefits to same-sex partners for several years before the law change in Minnesota.

"At Concordia, we recognize all marriages and provide benefits in that same way," said Peggy Torrance, director of human resources. "However they identified they were married, we recognized that marriage."

The tuition discount waiver policy change originated from the Pride Network -- an LGBT faculty and staff group at NDSU.

They worked with university attorneys to see how they could change the language to be more inclusive. The policy change was approved by the faculty and staff senates.

Under North Dakota University System policy, every institution has the authority to determine its own tuition waiver policy, NDSU General Counsel Chris Wilson wrote in an email.

The changes to the policy "reflect the desire of the Faculty Senate, the Staff Senate and the Student Government to extend tuition waivers to same-sex partners of eligible NDSU employees so as to help recruit [and] retain the best faculty and staff," Wilson wrote.

Stone Carlson said the tuition benefit change is "a step in the right direction" that could make NDSU more attractive to LGBT faculty.

In his experience recruiting faculty, Stone Carlson said he's had conversations about the lack of benefits for same-sex couples while trying to highlight the few benefits available.

"In some cases, it's been a barrier to come or apply," he said.

In other cases, the fact that the university is working to be more inclusive has been viewed as a positive.

"We as a university and a state system would want to make it a priority to be a welcoming and inclusive place," Stone Carlson said. "We wouldn't want to put ourselves at a disadvantage in terms of recruiting that doesn't benefit anyone."

He and others are optimistic that Bresciani will approve the change based on his support for diversity and inclusivity measures in the past.