A year ago, Stark State College lost true talent when Dr. Jennifer Cunningham accepted a position at Kent State Stark in order to secure benefits for her family. Dr. Cunningham’s dedication to her students and her discipline was unwavering; however, the inequality Dr. Cunningham and other LGBT faculty and staff members experience cannot continue to be ignored. Stark AAUP encourages all members of our community to support equality in our College; otherwise, we risk losing other valuable voices.
Stark AAUP would like to thank Dr. Cunningham for her willingness to share her experience with us in the guest post below, and for her unrelenting support of equality for all members of the SSC community during her time at the College.
Stark AAUP recently made me aware of their efforts to support domestic partner benefits at Stark State College (SSC). I applaud this effort and hope that, for once, it does not fall on deaf administrative ears.
I was employed by SSC for three years as an instructor in the English department. I enjoyed my time there and credit my ability to obtain my current position to the opportunities I was afforded by the English department. While there, I was fully supported by my department and division. The College, however, is a different story.
I write this to make others aware that this is not the first time that SSC has been implored to treat their employees equally. I began my own charge for domestic partner benefits when I was hired in 2010, and the discussion had begun long before me. In January 2013, I received the Character Counts at Stark State College Faculty Award for the Pillar of Respect. Having been given such an honor by students who wrote submission letters detailing the ways that I treat all of my students with respect, I thought it was an opportune time to point out the discrepancy between the way that faculty treated students and the way that the College treated faculty. In a letter I sent to Dr. Para Jones, I wrote:
Being chosen for this award speaks more about my colleagues’ and students’ sense of what they value than it does anything I could claim to be or uphold. I am a persevering, ambitious young woman who happens to enjoy teaching and writing and all facets of academia. Further, I am a lesbian and choose not to hide that part of who I am to my colleagues or students. We discuss audience and context and purpose in all of my writing classes and become a close-knit community of people who work together—learning, valuing, and respecting different ways of existing in this world, all while trying to better ourselves academically, holistically, and globally as citizens.
I proudly accept this award of Character and, in turn, hope that Stark State College chooses to continue to uphold those same sentiments, treating faculty, staff, and students with respect, equality, and fairness. In that way, I once again implore you to adopt domestic partner benefits so that all qualified employees can partake of the same equalities afforded to other members of the Stark State College community.
Enclosed, you will find a letter from a student whom I taught for two semesters in College Composition and College Composition II. I have asked her permission to share this letter with you so that the administration can be more aware of the importance that diversity, equality, and respect play within the classroom. My students value who I am as an educator and as a person and, likewise, I value my students as people. Please set an excellent example for our students and community by treating employees equally.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been in contact with [omitted], the Director of Benefits at [omitted], who is willing to work with Stark State College regarding implementing domestic partner benefits. If I can be of any assistance, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Thank you for creating a working environment that values character.
In response to my letter, Dr. Jones called me on my office phone to let me know that she “heard” me. This was similar to the response I had been given after sending an email to Dr. Jones regarding domestic partner benefits soon after she became the College’s president.
Because I had sent emails, letters, and had conversations with administration regarding SSC’s lack of equality and refusal to obtain domestic partner benefits, I chose to go back on the job market in search of a position at an institution that also supported my family. Fortunately, I was able to obtain such a position. In my letter of resignation, which I forwarded to Dr. Para Jones, I was specific about my reasons for leaving:
Ultimately, my decision to apply to other universities and to accept the offer from Kent Stark was related to the lack of equality found at SSC. Since being hired as a full-time faculty member in 2010, I have been advocating for domestic partner benefits to no avail. This “benefit” is a basic right afforded all married couples and, even though the state of Ohio does not recognize all marriages, I would appreciate and expect an institution of higher learning to set an example and fight to value and support people, equality, and education. The lack of attention to this issue is disappointing and unacceptable, to say the least. As I have articulated in past letters, if SSC aims to attract and retain high-caliber instructors and scholars, the College must be able to compete with other public institutions and, currently, it cannot.
Again, I have appreciated and enjoyed the experiences and the relationships that I have gained while employed at SSC. I look forward to teaching online classes this summer, maintaining professional relationships with many colleagues, and continuing the friendships with the wonderful people whom I have met while at SSC. I wish nothing but success for my fellow colleagues and hope that SSC chooses to be on the right side of history, fighting for equality and supporting the people who make this College an excellent institution of learning.
Once again, I implore SSC to choose equality, to choose what is right.
Jennifer M. Cunningham
Assistant Professor of English
Kent State University at Stark