Extreme Weather Threatens Virginia's Universities

The leaders of Virginia's public colleges and universities await the state's upcoming election of a new governor like cattle frozen in front of a coming line of extreme weather. An unpredictable, severe electoral event is challenging the presidents, rectors and vice rectors of Virginia's colleges and universities as no other political collision since the 1960s. The pure extremism of Republican Ken Cuccinelli versus the too-slick-by-half Democrat Terry McAuliffe leaves no easy choice. Yet Virginia's higher education leaders seem frozen in the face of this election, fearing retribution from either side, when they should be moving forward with confidence and programs that compete with peer institutions nationwide.

Standing tall to compete is the 6'7" former basketball captain of the College of William & Mary, now the college's rector, Jeffrey B. Trammell. Jeff Trammell helped lead William & Mary toward a new financial operating model unveiled this year, providing a four-year tuition guarantee for all students, while raising tuition for those who can afford to pay more market-based pricing. Virginia's universities and public colleges will surely benefit from this kind of competitive innovation. Likewise, they would benefit by heeding Trammell's call to compete for the best faculty members nationwide by ending the state's discrimination against gay and lesbian faculty and staff.

In April, Trammell wrote the Virginia Council of College and University Presidents requesting they "consider the possible implementation of partner benefits for gay and lesbian faculty and staff ... based on fairness and competitiveness." Trammell's request was welcomed by the president of Virginia Tech, Charles W. Steger, who asked that domestic partner health insurance for gay and lesbian faculty and staff be considered by the council. These benefits are not a trivial matter. Trammell is talking about vital health insurance coverage for gay and lesbian faculty, their partners and families who can choose to live and teach elsewhere from the University of Maryland to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. They have options and should definitely consider them, given the current environment in Virginia. Unfortunately, there remains no progress on Trammell's request for a "restatement" of the need to treat gay and lesbian faculty the same as all faculty members.

Virginia Tech, George Mason University and Virginia Commonwealth University all have spoken to the need to provide gay and lesbian partners equal benefits. Only the University of Virginia has remained silent. The University of Virginia's president, Terry Sullivan, remains silent on the subject, even as her predecessor, John Casteen, wrote Gov. Tim Kaine in 2009 supporting partner benefits for gay and lesbian faculty and staff. UVa's new rector, George Martin, and Vice Rector William H. Goodwin, Jr. have yet to come forward. In two years, Goodwin will become rector. One can only hope that this Richmond business leader, former chairman of the Darden School of Business Foundation and chairman of the holding company that is invested in such respected institutions as the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond and Keswick Hall in Charlottesville does not want to be associated with an outmoded legacy of discrimination.

I have been hearing a lot from the UVa alumni association this year, the 40th reunion of my Class of '73. What better way to mark the occasion than encourage the University of Virginia to step forward and join with the Rector of William & Mary -- Mr. Jefferson's Alma mater? Extreme weather will pass.