August 20, 2013

NOT LONG AGO, a tenured professor at the University of Virginia’s College of Arts and Sciences moved to a university in New York because her same-sex partner, diagnosed with cancer, couldn’t get covered by her health insurance in Virginia. A physician at U-Va.’s medical school decamped for an Ivy League school because state law doesn’t recognize her relationship with her partner or their children, so she couldn’t get them coverage.

How many more talented minds have to leave before Virginia takes concrete action to protect publicly employed academics and thus the quality of their universities?

That’s the question raised by Jeff Trammell, who documented these and other difficulties encountered by gay faculty before he stepped down last month as a board member at Virginia’s College of William and Mary, his alma mater; he was rector, or leader of the board, for the past two years. Before he left, Mr. Trammell, who is gay, urged that Virginia allow public universities to offer domestic partner benefits to academics in same-sex partnerships and marriages.

In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling earlier this summer that the federal government must treat same-sex marriages the same as heterosexual ones, gay and lesbian academics are weighing a new set of incentives to leave public universities and colleges in the commonwealth.

“We already have lost valued gay and lesbian faculty to our competitors who do not discriminate,” Mr. Trammell told The Post’s Nick Anderson in an interview. “With changes in federal benefits soon available to legally married gay couples, we will lose more.”

A number of Virginia’s public university presidents pushed for the state to address this very problem in 2009. They have been ignored by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and the outspoken anti-gayrights attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli II (R). Mr. Trammell is right to bring up the issue again.

U-Va., an academic powerhouse, is one of eight so-called “public Ivies.” It tied for second place in this year’s U.S. News & World Report rankings of the nation’s public universities. Unless the university fixes this situation quickly, its standing and prestige may suffer.

As Mr. Trammell wrote in a June 11 letter to the president of Virginia Tech, there is troubling evidence that the state may face an accelerating brain drain of gay academics. And when they leave, in many cases they take their grant funding with them. For example, he detailed how a tenured professor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s pharmacology and toxicology department moved to a private nonprofit research institution in North Carolina that offered full benefits to her partner of 20 years. When she left, she took along her grant of more than $1 million — a loss for Virginia and a win for North Carolina.

Even in states that, like Virginia, don’t recognize same-sex marriage, some public universities have expanded health-care benefits to include same-sex couples. The University of Missouri, for instance, recently adopted a more inclusive plan. There’s no reason that Virginia shouldn’t be able to do the same — especially at Thomas Jefferson’s university.

Read more on this topic:

The Post’s View: Equalizing benefits for same-sex couples

Jonathan Capehart: Gay couple get the dignity they deserve

Jonathan Rauch: Five myths about gay marriage

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Can same-sex couples help save marriage?