Senior administrative officials at George Mason University want to offer domestic partner benefits to faculty and staff, and so do other Virginia universities. A December Public Policy poll found that 59 percent of Virginians would like domestic partnerships to be legally recognized. Most Virginia lawmakers, however, are not on board.

When asked about the issue of extending benefits to same-sex couples, Provost Peter Stearns and Linda Harber, the associate vice president of Human Resources & Payroll at Mason, said the same thing: “It’s the right thing to do.”

“I don’t think that it’s an economic issue — it’s a people issue. And, yes, if we had the authority [we’d already] be doing it,” Harber said. “We should be providing comprehensive benefits packages for everyone, not just for traditional [couples].”

In 2009, the presidents of the College of William & Mary and the University of Virginia joined Mason President Alan Merten in publicly supporting then-Governor Tim Kaine’s efforts to authorize Virginia public institutions to extend benefit packages to same-sex couples.

According to a letter signed by the three university presidents, “Most of the major national private and public universities with whom we compete when we hire or work to retain top faculty already offer domestic partner benefits. The ability to offer this benefit is increasingly important now as we attempt to recruit and retain the best faculty and staff in the most challenging economic climate we have seen.”

Although Kaine issued an executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, he was unable to push through legislation to allow public institutions to extend health insurance benefits to same-sex couples before the end of his term.

“It does have an impact on recruitment,” Harber said. “If two schools offer you a teaching job — and one offers you benefits and one doesn’t, if one allows you to have proper health care coverage and one doesn’t — that would factor into your decision.”

“If we’re looking at how we compete with our peers, we’re behind the curve,” said Dan Waxman, a doctoral student in Education who gave a presentation on the topic at the Southeastern Women’s Studies Association 2012 Conference. “It’s completely dependent on the political culture of the state,” he said.

Fifty-seven percent of Mason’s peer institutions offer benefits to same-sex partners. Many universities in Washington D.C., including Georgetown University and George Washington University, already do.

Virginia institutions including Hampden Sydney College, Washington & Lee University and the University of Richmond also offer domestic partner benefits. They can do so because they are private universities.

The office of Gov. Bob McDonnell did not respond to requests for comment.