Outgoing rector warns Virginia on gay marriage

August 12, 2013

Jeff Trammell, a D.C. lobbyist and gay Democratic activist, was elated when the Supreme Court ruled in late June that the federal government must treat legally married gay couples the same as married heterosexual couples.

But as the outgoing leader of the College of William and Mary’s governing Board of Visitors, Trammell also worried that the ruling would make Virginia’s vaunted public universities less attractive for gay academics. Virginia prohibits same-sex marriage and does not offer health benefits to domestic partners of state employees. The District, Maryland and a dozen other states have legalized same-sex marriage.

The high court decision adds “a substantial incentive for our gay and lesbian faculty and staff to leave the Commonwealth’s public universities and colleges,” Trammell wrote to other Virginia higher education leaders in a June 26 e-mail, hours after the ruling was issued.

Trammell had earlier noted — in a letter on June 11 — that the presidents of the University of Virginia, George Mason University and William and Mary had pushed for the state to allow public universities to offer domestic partner health benefits in late 2009. That effort stalled after Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) took office in January 2010.

On July 1, Trammell ended his second four-year term on the William and Mary board; he was rector, or leader, for the past two years.


Jeff Trammell is seen at his home in Washington. (Matthew Girard/For The Washington Post)

Trammell, 63, a 1973 William and Mary graduate who captained the college basketball team, lives in the District with his partner of 36 years, Stuart Serkin. Trammell spoke with The Washington Post about the issue via telephone and e-mail.

How will the ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act affect Virginia’s public colleges and universities?

We already have lost valued gay and lesbian faculty to our competitors who do not discriminate. With changes in federal benefits soon available to legally married gay couples, we will lose more. Two able individuals told me [recently] that they are leaving for another state — one a top professor [in a science-technology field] and another a university administrator just recruited to Virginia a few years ago.

What should Virginia do?

At a minimum, the state should immediately allow our public colleges and universities to offer health insurance and other equal benefits to the same-sex partners of their faculty and staff. The commonwealth is undervaluing our universities and their attractiveness to businesses that prize education. Everyone, Democrats and Republicans, needs to come together to end this discrimination.

Tell us about your effort to mobilize public university leaders on this issue.

I wrote to the presidents and fellow rectors, sharing examples and explaining how our discrimination against roughly 5 percent of our employees who are gay and lesbian has compelled some to leave the commonwealth and imposed unforgivable hardships on those who stay. I also gave examples of academic talent who will not consider offers from Virginia’s public universities. Ironically, many rectors and other university board members work for law firms or corporations that provide partner benefits. While they acknowledge the importance of these benefits for their own gay and lesbian colleagues, they, too, often remain silent when it comes to best practices and fairness at our leading universities.

What was their reaction?

Mostly silence.

Some did respond?

My conversations have to remain private, but no president or board member to whom I’ve spoken doubts the need. Yet there is great angst over publicly admitting we are discriminating against these faculty and staff, and asking the state to remedy that. I certainly understand politics, but the interests of our universities require us not to be silent.

Tell us more about how the policy has affected faculty and staff.

Some gay and lesbian faculty and staff — including at the University of Virginia, George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth, Virginia Tech and William and Mary — have sent me their stories: senior professors whose partners had cancer and no health insurance; researchers who left the commonwealth, taking major grants with them; faculty who, unlike their straight colleagues, are paying out of their pockets for costly individual policies for their partners and who resent the discrimination; young professors and administrators who are looking to leave the state; and so forth.

This issue has been raised before, right? What’s the history of it?

In 2009, presidents [John] Casteen (U-Va.), [Alan G.] Merten (GMU) and [Taylor] Reveley (W&M) wrote then-Gov. Tim Kaine calling for the state’s remedy. Kaine tried to push ahead through regulation, but when the new attorney general took office, he halted the effort.

You are believed to be the first openly gay person on the governing board of a Virginia public college or university and the first to serve as rector. What was the public reaction when you were named rector?

There was modest attention, and an emotional response from our gay and lesbian faculty, staff and students. They were proud that their new rector was one of their own. However, they also knew just as clearly as I did that I would be judged by my performance and my service to Virginia, and not by any other characteristics.

Nationally, how many university governing boards have openly gay members?

Today, serving on the board of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, I am stunned to realize that there are fewer than 10 openly gay trustees at the hundreds of public universities and colleges across the nation. Private institutions have more. Diversity on boards is important, as this issue in Virginia indicates.

nick.anderson@washpost.com

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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