By Kayla Tucker – A&E/Features Editor
John Cowles, Dean of Student Success and Retention at Grand Rapids Community College, has been with his partner, Ric Underhile, for more than 21 years. Cowles receives benefits as an employee, but unlike married couples, those benefits do not extend to his partner.
After years of discussion behind closed doors, the Faculty Association at GRCC is asking the Board of Trustees to approve the addition of domestic partnership benefits to next year’s budget.
Cowles is optimistic that change will come.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Cowles said. “It’s time. It’s 2015… I think in the end it will probably pass.”
At Monday’s monthly Board of Trustees meeting, Faculty Association President Frederick van Hartesveldt presented the proposal on behalf of the association.
“There’s nothing new about the topic,” van Hartesveldt said. “These benefits are legally possible if we have the will to do it.”
Right now more than eight faculty members will qualify for the benefits, if implemented, and the healthcare cost would increase by about two percent and the cost for dental and vision insurance will stay the same. van Hartesveldt said that at most it will cost the school $150,000, but the total cost won’t be known until people start to apply for benefits.
The new beneficiary qualifications will run along the same lines as the 2014 MESSA Eligibility Document.
President Steven Ender feels that the benefit is long overdue.
“As the president, I want to see this happen,” Ender said. “It’s my expectation that we will have it in the budget…I think it’s the right thing to do.”
Following van Hartesveldt’s presentation to the board, the trustees had no questions. When the board opened up the floor to public comment, Keith St. Clair, political science professor, stepped up to comment.
“The domestic partner benefits would be an equalizer of some sort that both straights and gays could take advantage of,” St. Clair said. He mentioned one of GRCC’s statements that says “we don’t discriminate along the sub lines of sexual orientation.”
“But the fact is, we do,” he said.
Cowles said that he knows that he is not afraid to be the voice for gay faculty and administration at the college, but he knows he’s not the only one.
“At this point in my life, I’m quite happy to speak up for what’s right, no matter what that issue is,” said Cowles, who was recently interviewed by MLive.com. “And I did that with the full knowledge and collaboration with the institution as well.”
Emily Nisley, Associate Professor and Counselor and GRCC, has been with her partner, Jessica, for over five years.
“To offer domestic partner benefits would communicate to me that the college was valuing me in the same way they are valuing my co-workers,” Nisley said. “I appreciate that it is being seriously considered and I am hopeful that it will happen.”
Grand Valley State University adopted a similar domestic partnership benefits program in 2008.
Davenport University added domestic partnership benefits in 2013.
“Check your consciences,” van Hartesveldt said as a final word to the board. “You don’t need anyone’s permission. It’s something we can do now.”
View GRCC’s full board meeting here.