More Than an HR Issue: Guest Post from Dr. Jennifer Cunningham

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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

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6 thoughts on “More Than an HR Issue: Guest Post from Dr. Jennifer Cunningham

  1. Tyler

    So can we assume the tenure track and a hefty pay raise had nothing to do with the job change? Congratulations to you, and best of luck at your new job.

    I dearly wish people would stop telling me their sexual orientation, or in certain cases at the college, wearing it like a suit of armor. Carry on with whatever makes you happy. I just don’t need to know, it doesn’t make me like you more or less. In return, I’m not going to tell you what I do on my free time either.

    • Angela

      I’m unsure how anyone can wear sexual orientation like a suit of armor…can you clarify? But I guess heterosexuality might be seen as protective armor, in that it allows for the privilege of unfettered access to things like spousal benefits.

  2. Tyler,

    Thanks for responding! As always, your posts lead to lively discussion! *I appreciate that*.

    The reality is that individuals who belong to the the LGBT community are no more inclined to (or interested in) divulge their sexual orientation than are straight people. The fact that heteronormative (cis-gendered) persons are “allowed” to speak of their families and relationships openly, while non-heteronormative families and relationships are to be tolerated as long as they remain hidden is a construct of institutional discrimination.

    Honest question: Would the scenario above be any more palatable if Dr. Cunnigham were discussing her interracial relationship, as opposed to her homosexual one? Would the expectation of equal treatment be any more reasonable? I think not; but, the reality is that 47 years ago, the same structural barriers existed for interracial couples. It wasn’t until people started donning their “suits of armor” that the discriminatory laws were changed.

    Lastly, we (yes, I’ve donned my Medieval mail) as LGBT faculty are not necessarily looking for acceptance or to be liked. What we are in hot pursuit of is equality – the equality espoused by our U.S. Constitution (and upheld by the Supreme Court in instances of LGBT marriages), and the equality articulated in our institution’s mission statement and institutional goals – nothing more, nothing less.

    Thanks again for responding. I’d be more than happy to continue this discussion on or offline!!!

    Have a great evening!

  3. Tyler

    Hello Martina, I also enjoy the discussion. May we commence our jousting as you have now donned Medieval mail? Thanks for making me Google (is that a verb now?) hetero-normative just to be sure that I knew what it meant. Did you really just tell me your sexual orientation after I specifically asked people to stop telling me? Actually it is OK because you did it in the structure of a conversation where it is relevant.

    I’m not so sure the interracial point is apples to apples. We are talking about partner benefits. In order to get this benefit for homosexual couples the definition has to be expanded out to include heterosexual couples that are cohabiting. This is done by claiming that this group of people are also being discriminated against. In my opinion the hetero couple is not suffering any discrimination because if they want said benefits they will enter into the legal contract known as marriage. At some point homosexual marriage will be legal in Ohio, and these unions will be eligible for benefits. Your fight is really with the State of Ohio, not Stark State College.

    We have some Instructors who feel the need to walk into a classroom and find a way to announce their sexual orientation. Why they think the students need to know this information in order to educate them, I cannot deduce. There are a few people (not all, and I am not referring to you, Martina) that use their suit of armor to get special treatment. You didn’t give me that job promotion because I am gay. I didn’t get the class schedule I want because I am gay. You don’t like me because I’m gay and so forth. The same type of argument can be launched substituting in racism or sexism. There is also no defense to this argument for the person it is launched against, and everyone is deathly afraid in this PC environment of having it used against them.

    Have a good weekend.

    • mgretta67

      Hi Tyler,

      Yes, I’m still aptly suited up… I DID tell you my orientation in context to make a point, and yes, I did it after you specifically professed your disdain for such proclamations. And yes, it really was (and remains) relevant to this discussion. BTW, thanks for taking the time to Google (yes, it IS a verb now) heteronormativity…

      The interracial point IS apples to apples. We are talking about SPOUSAL benefits, not unmarried couples benefits. The issue is not whether SSC should offer benefits to cohabitating couples (of any orientation); rather, the issue is whether SSC will offer benefits to persons who enter into legal marriages and civil unions. The problem is this: LGBT couples can marry outside of the state of Ohio and come home as a legally married unit, just as any heteronormative couple can. The only difference between heteronormative and queer couples is their sex and/or gender identity – premises upon which their rightfully earned benefits are being denied them. These couples are being denied their Constitutionally granted right to equitable treatment because Ohio does not recognize same sex marriage. The same treatment was levied towards interracial couples prior to Loving v Virginia, in 1967. Many states would not recognize interracial marriages, and these couples were denied benefits, lacked job security (if their “status” were found out), and suffered a host of structural barriers to equality and equal access to resources, based solely on the arbitrary definition of their marriage on a state-by-state basis. The United States Supreme Court, in that instance, spoke to dismantle (in part) the institutionally discriminatory framework, and stopped the separate-but-not-equal practices that were so widely utilized against interracial couples. Once they did, the issue was moot. In the contemporary instance, however, the United States Supreme Court has ruled on the unconstitutionality of DOMA (and the vestiges thereof); yet, states continue to gnash their collective teeth and throw dust upon their heads to protest and derail the progress towards equality. This is where our moral stance as an organization comes in: Do we perpetuate structural inequality by throwing up our hands and sticking our heads in the sand, saying “Well, Ohio doesn’t recognize same sex marriage, so we can’t do anything.”, or do we follow the lead of the grand majority of our college and university contemporaries (within and outside of Ohio) and ensure that our faculty and their families are provided the benefits and treatment that they have earned? THAT is the choice.

      Tyler, in some instances, it is an academically sound practice for LGBT faculty to “come out” to their students. Particularly in venues wherein social structure is being analyzed, it serves as a pedagogical tool. Just as one’s race or sex can be used to spark discussion in the classroom (again – VERY effective tools), so can one’s orientation, regardless of whether or not it is heteronormative. It’s actually a very common practice, and has been found to yield (anecdotally, and empirically – according to research) excellent results.

      Lastly, I’ve never come in contact with any faculty persons here at SSC who use their orientation as a “crutch”. In fact, many of us remain closeted – even amongst ourselves – for fear of reprisal. It’s a sad situation, but many of us sublimate our very identity to ensure that we aren’t treated in a discriminatory manner. I’m not denying that in general, some individuals have used their race, sex, sexuality, ethnicity, (and other stigmatizing markers) as weapons; however, most of us just want to be treated with respect and dignity WITHOUT bringing attention to our personal definition of self/sexuality.

      Again, I extend my hand to discuss this in person, and to provide you with any information that I have that would shed light onto this subject.

      Have a good evening.

      m

    • Angela

      I would absolutely reiterate the pedagogical uses. Also consider that I can mention my husband on the first day of class, and in any number of examples I may use throughout the course, and no one would ever presume that I felt the need to announce my sexual orientation or wonder why I chose to state it to students. Part of my privilege as a heterosexual person (sorry, I don’t mean to be another person telling you but it is relevant in the context of the discussion) also means that if I don’t get promoted, or get my desired class schedule, or someone doesn’t like me, then I don’t really have to consider whether or not it may have been because of my choice of partner. And no one will suggest that I seek special treatment because of my sexual orientation and marital status – even though that is exactly what I do get in the form of tacit social approval, access to benefits, tax breaks, etc.

      It sounds like you may be referring to a specific individual in what you describe, Tyler. I might suggest in that case that the issue truly lies with the particular person and their chosen mechanism of interaction rather than a direct result of demographic characteristics, and the patterns shouldn’t be generalized as evidence of an “overly-PC” environment.

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