As the state threatens to take away domestic partner benefits for employees, the University is claiming their independence.

Suellyn Scarnecchia, vice president and general counsel, spoke before the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs yesterday, stressing the importance of domestic partner benefits for employees. She said if the state passed legislation requiring the University to revoke benefits for domestic partners, the University would stand by its current constitutional independence and disregard the legislation.

“We would argue that the Legislature cannot tell the universities what kind of benefits to offer its employees, and this would be based on a long line of cases that recognize the constitutional autonomy of universities in the state of Michigan,” Scarnecchia said.

The University’s current benefit policy under the bylaws includes health benefits for homosexual as well as unmarried heterosexual couples.

Earlier this month, some SACUA members questioned whether the University should be involved in the state issue, because it operates according to its own bylaws. At the time, SACUA Chair Kate Barald said she believed the University needed to be involved because of the law’s widespread impact on other institutions.

At yesterday’s meeting, Ed Rothman, SACUA member and professor of statistics, raised concern that this course of action would potentially put the University’s autonomy at risk. Scarnecchia acknowledged his unease, and said constitutional self-government cases are risky because the court may potentially rule against the University and create limits on its power to make its own decisions.

“Any time we go into court and argue that we should be treated differently or the legislature shouldn’t be able to tell us something because of our constitutional autonomy, we risk a bad decision,” Scarnecchia said. “Instead of getting what we want, we get a decision that says the (University) does not have autonomy in this area, and it narrows the definition of autonomy, so it’s always a risk.”

Task Force aims to improve recreational facilities

Later in the meeting, the Senate Assembly’s Advisory Task Force on Faculty Involvement in Health Plan Incentives discussed the reasons for establishing a health promotion program that would benefit students, faculty and staff, along with its recommendations on how to implement the program.

The task force was formed in September 2010 to identify incentives for faculty to exercise and become healthier in order to drive down costs of health care, and ultimately save money for the University. The task force cited the poor state of the University’s recreational facilities as the major deterrent for students, faculty and staff to stay active and healthy.

“If you look at the facilities here at (the University), we aren’t the leaders and best. We’re not even in the middle — we’re at the bottom,” faculty member Charles Koopmann said.

Koopmann said the issue of recreational facilities has largely been ignored by the administration which focuses more on renovations of athletic and academic facilities and that the suggestions put forth by the Advisory Task Force would move the administration in a positive direction.

“The problem with the Coleman administration is they really did not address this like they did the luxury boxes at the stadium,” Koopmann said. “They put those on the high priority list and I think it’s time we put the health and well-being of the faculty, staff and students at the top of the list, and this would hopefully be a guide to do so.”

Koopmann said despite the priority that the Division of Student Affairs has placed on recreational facility improvements, it is not on the administration’s agenda until February, which is why he hopes the suggestions of the task force will speed up the process.

SACUA Chair Kate Barald, a professor of biomedical engineering and cell and developmental biology, said, in an interview after the meeting, she believes the recreational facilities need to be improved for the benefit of the University.

“We need new and more modern facilities,” Barald said. “We need them not only to increase the chances the people will use them and actually benefit from them if we mean to be a competitive university to attract the best students.”

Barald said she is optimistic that new recreational facilities will be built, especially since it is a major concern for E. Royster Harper, vice president for the Division of Student Affairs.

“It’s a major agenda item for her office,” Barald said. “She’s looking at this as part of a student problem, but there’s a synergy between the students and the faculty.”

Katarina Borer, a professor of kinesiology in attendance at the meeting, raised the concern that rather than focusing on the facilities themselves, it is more important to focus on how people use the facilities. She reasoned that because behavior change is difficult, people themselves should be the greatest concern, not the buildings.

“I don’t think the issue is the facilities, which are adequate if people want to go there,” Borer said. “The issue is how many people will utilize them and how many of those who utilize them will show significant changes in their health.”

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