University of Nebraska President J.B. Milliken proposed Friday extending university benefits to employees' partners.

He said the change would address fairness and competitiveness in employee recruitment, retention and satisfaction and would better position the university to attract talent.

Under the "employee plus one" proposal, outlined by Milliken and Vice President for Business and Finance David Lechner, the university would extend coverage to a qualifying unrelated adult who shares an employee's household and with whom the employee is financially interdependent, or family coverage for the employee, the other adult and their dependent children.

The benefit wouldn't be offered to certain people, including employees, tenants or extended family such as parents or siblings.

"I do believe that there is a competitive imperative here," Milliken said. "I also believe there's a basic issue of treating our employees equitably."

Every other Big Ten university provides some form of domestic partner benefit, as do a majority of the four NU campuses' peers. The faculty senates on all four campuses as well as student governments in Omaha, Lincoln and Kearney have adopted resolutions urging the university to enact such a proposal, Milliken said. The University-wide Fringe Benefits Committee and all four NU chancellors have endorsed it.

The proposal wouldn't include such benefits as retirement or Family Medical Leave Act benefits.

NU officials have estimated the cost of extending health insurance benefits to qualifying adults of the same and opposite gender to be $750,000 to $1.5 million based on an estimated increase in enrollment of 1 to 2 percent, or about 100 to 200 new employee sign-ups. Total costs for the university's health insurance plan today are more than $120 million.

Lechner said a 2009 survey of Big Ten schools showed each had seen an increase of 62 to 106 new employee sign-ups when they implemented "plus one" benefits. He said the benefits wouldn't violate Nebraska's Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman and was passed by voters in November 2000.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman said offering "plus one" benefits would make the university more attractive to potential staff and faculty candidates.

"This university has some very ambitious goals moving forward," he said. "This continues to emerge as an important criteria for us achieving those objectives."

Perlman has called for UNL to enroll 30,000 students, or 5,400 more students, and have 1,300 tenure-track faculty, or 160 more, by 2017.

He said he's received letters from UNL employees who left the university because it didn't offer domestic partner benefits. Employee candidates have declined job offers for the same reason, he said.

"The fact that we are in the Big Ten now makes our absence of these benefits more visible, much more visible to the marketplace," he said.

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Regent Randy Ferlic of Omaha said he was concerned about the cost of offering such benefits.

"I have no problem with the benefits," he said. "My only problem is with funding them."

Regent Bob Phares of North Platte pointed out NU's non-discrimination policy, which includes sexual orientation and marital status.

"The words are ‘undue discrimination,'" Regent Howard Hawks of Omaha said, correcting Phares' description of the policy.

The benefits expansion proposal was introduced for discussion only at the Board of Regents' meeting on Friday. The issue may be considered for action at the Regents' next regular meeting on Dec. 8. If approved, the benefits would become available beginning July 1, 2012.

During time allotted for public comment Friday, Omaha Christian Academy maintenance worker Peter Smagacz said homosexuality is a deviant lifestyle and should not be condoned by state education leaders. He urged regents to ignore the actions of other universities when considering domestic partner benefits.

"We are not here to keep up with the Joneses in the Big Ten," he said. "We are here to educate Nebraska."

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 402-473-7225 or kabourezk@journalstar.com.

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