Texas State profs press for change

Faculty leaders want school to declare it does not discriminate against gays.

By Jason Embry
Austin American-Statesman
Friday, October 24, 2003

SAN MARCOS -- Texas State University has been pretty good to Ron Sawey over the past 35 years.

He earned academic tenure in the computer science department. Colleagues chose him to represent them in the Faculty Senate. He'll even tell you that the students taking his classes are an increasingly impressive bunch.

What Sawey wants now is to know that the university cannot discriminate against him because he is gay. And he wants to see it in writing.

Like many schools, Texas State has a written policy barring discrimination or harassment based on "race, color, national origin, age, sex, religion or disability." The policy appears on campus Web pages and in publications such as the faculty handbook.

But Sawey and other faculty leaders say it does not go far enough. They have pushed administrators in recent years to expand the policy so that it also forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation.

"By and large, our school is a very tolerant institution," said Sawey, 60. "It's not about whether there is rampant discrimination on this campus based on any of those categories. It's about setting a tone of tolerance and acceptance, the kind of tone that the kind of institution that we aspire to be would have."

Such a policy doesn't exist, present and former school administrators say, because of lack of support from leaders of the other eight schools in the Texas State University System. Faculty members are lobbying to build that support.

Denise Trauth, president of the San Marcos campus, supports expanding the policy. Trauth, who became president of the 26,000-student school last year, said she thinks adding sexual orientation to the statement would accurately reflect the school's values.

But she also thinks that such a change does not come easily.

Previous efforts to change the policy have failed because the issue has never formally gone before the regents that governors have appointed to oversee the system. Frustrated by the inertia in the larger Texas State family, some faculty members say it's time for Trauth to simply change the policy as it relates to her campus, the system's largest.

But enacting a policy that has failed to win approval at the system level could weaken her relationship with system regents, Trauth said.

"The only way I know how to interact with our board of regents is in a trust environment," she said.

In an August letter to Faculty Senate Chairman Bill Stone, Trauth said two regents advised her that she should take the issue to one of their committees.

Faculty leaders from schools across Texas are meeting in Austin this weekend, and Texas State representatives will seek votes of support for their efforts from professors at other Texas State schools and from the statewide Texas Council of Faculty Senates. Trauth said the backing of these groups could help her make a stronger case to the board.

Stone, a professor of criminal justice, said members of the Faculty Senate are willing to see if the next attempt to persuade the regents will succeed. But they also have voiced unanimous support for a change specific to the San Marcos campus -- a change that would not require regents' approval. Stone said faculty leaders will press again for that change if the system effort fails.

"The senate is determined that we're just going to stay on this forever if that's what it takes," Stone said.

The Faculty Senate, a 15-member body of professors elected by their colleagues, passed multiple resolutions during the 1990s calling for the addition of sexual orientation to the nondiscrimination policy. Student leaders also expressed support. Jerome Supple, university president from 1989 to 2002, decided he needed the approval of regents before he could enact the change.

But presidents at the other schools in the Texas State system did not see a need for the change and they opted not to take it before the regents, Supple said in an interview this week. An individual regent can put an issue on the agenda, but Supple said there was little point in pursuing that option without other presidents on board.

"They said it hadn't come up as an issue on their campuses, and they didn't feel they should put it on there on their own," he said.

System Chancellor Lamar Urbanovsky said the school presidents did not see a need for changing the policy. Urbanovsky, the system's chief administrator, said this week that he has no opinion on whether the policy should be changed.

Supple and other administrators later determined that they could change the policy for the San Marcos campus without approval of the system regents. He said he thought he had set the wheels in motion for the change when he retired last year, but it was never finished.

Austin insurance executive John Hageman, the chairman of the regents, said he has not talked to regents about adding sexual orientation to the policy and does not know how they would react. Hageman said he wants to learn about the policy at other Texas schools before deciding how he would vote on the issue.

Public schools in the state that specify sexual orientation in their policies on discrimination or harassment include the University of Texas, Texas A&M, the University of North Texas and Austin Community College. Private schools with similar policies include Rice, Southwestern and Southern Methodist universities.

David Rushing, the chairman of the Young Conservatives of Texas, said faculty members are stepping outside their bounds as educators by pushing for a change in the policy.

"If people don't want to accept that lifestyle, they should not be compelled to do so," said Rushing, a law student at Southern Methodist University.

Texas State student Jason Stewart, 23, said he looked for a statement protecting gay students from discrimination before he enrolled. He didn't find it, but he did take comfort in the fact that the school had Lambda, a campus organization for gay, bisexual and transgender students.

Stewart is the president of that group, which has about 65 members and meets weekly.

The school also has a training program for faculty who, by putting a placard outside their offices, let students know that they're willing to discuss gay issues with them.

Stewart said he's not sure the policy change would make an immediate, visible difference. But over the course of several years, he said, the message would spread that the campus does not tolerate the harassment of gay students.

Stone said many members of the faculty have been surprised to learn that sexual orientation is not protected by the discrimination policy.

"We've been working for years to gain a change that seems both logical and self-evident," he said.

jembry@statesman.com; 512-392-8750

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