UCLA to establish unique law chair

Times Staff Writer

Thanks to a more than $1-million donation from a gay male couple who hope one day to marry in California, UCLA’s law school is planning to establish what is described as the nation’s first endowed academic chair in sexual orientation law.

The cash gift from John McDonald and Rob Wright will help fund the research of a still-to-be-named professor at UCLA Law School’s Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy. That 5-year-old think tank investigates such topics as anti-homosexual discrimination, the impact of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies and the demographics of same-sex couples who have adopted children.

“This is going to support legal scholarship, legal research and education that covers a whole area so fundamental to creating change,” said McDonald, a retired businessman and attorney who earned his bachelor’s degree at UCLA. “We just think this is one of the best things we’ve ever done.”

The UC system recently approved an agreement to accept the money, but formal establishment of the chair awaits a review to ensure that it matches UC’s research and teaching missions and is not too narrowly drawn, system officials said. Although the research topics may upset social conservatives, approval is expected.


The donation for the chair was announced publicly in connection with a Williams Institute conference Friday at the Westwood campus.

Though some universities have chairs in gay and gender studies, those have been in the humanities and social sciences and not in a law school, said Brad Sears, executive director of the Williams Institute.

A professor from the current UCLA law faculty will be appointed to the chair in three to six months, and the funds will help pay for such things as teaching assistants and research costs, Sears said.

“This is a big step,” he said, expressing his gratitude to the donors.

The gift for the chair was described by experts across the country as giving a prestigious boost to a budding field of scholarship. “It is a terrifically exciting and important development. And it is another marker that sexual orientation law has come into its own as an important field of study,” said Suzanne B. Goldberg, a Columbia University law school professor, who runs a clinic on those topics for students at that New York school.

Jennifer Pizer, a senior counsel for Lambda Legal, the national gay civil rights organization, agreed. She said that an endowed chair would be especially noteworthy because UCLA is such a well-respected school and a state university.

Pizer was among the conference speakers Friday who discussed laws that allow gay marriage in some European countries and the panoply of lawsuits involving the issue in the United States. In the keynote address, before an audience of about 150, Boris O. Dittrich, a former member of the Dutch Parliament, spoke about how his legislation led the Netherlands to be the first nation in the world to recognize homosexual marriage, starting in 2001.

McDonald and Wright, who split their time between homes in Colorado and West Hollywood, have lived together for nearly 25 years and have registered as domestic partners.


But they said they faced financial and legal burdens that a heterosexual couple would not.

For example, they made costly inheritance and insurance arrangements that “would have been totally unnecessary” for a straight married couple, Wright said. And when they travel, they always take legal documents that name each other as caretakers in case of a medical emergency, he said.

McDonald, 74, was the chief executive of Mullikin Medical Enterprises, a medical and hospital management firm that was sold in 1995. Wright, 58, worked in advertising and real estate.

If gay marriage were approved in California, the pair “would do it instantly,” McDonald said.


The state Supreme Court this year is expected to review an appeals court ruling that upheld a prohibition on same-sex marriage in California. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005 vetoed a bill that would have permitted gay marriage and said the issue was a matter for the courts to decide.

McDonald and Wright previously donated $100,000 so the Williams Institute could offer training for judges and lawyers in sexual orientation law. They are well known in the gay community for a $1.5-million donation in 1996 to the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, which then named its headquarters building after them.

The couple stress that they want the professor who takes the McDonald/Wright chair to avoid partisan advocacy and stick to objective research on a wide range of legal topics involving same-sex relationships, including adoption and property settlements after gay couples break up. But they clearly hope that such studies will aid the campaign for gay marriage and other gay rights issues.

The institute, which has a staff of 12, is named after its prime donor, Charles Williams, a UCLA alumnus who was a senior executive for Sperry Corp. Williams has given a total of $10 million to the institute, Sears said.


Williams, who was at Friday’s meeting, said he wanted to help establish an academic research unit rather than an advocacy group. “You don’t get change in the law or in public policy by saying it’s a nice thing to do or it’s right or it benefits people. You only do it by proving, through research, the facts,” said Williams, who lives in Malibu.

The institute’s recent studies have found, among other things, that more homosexuals live openly in rural areas of the United States than in the past and that nearly half of skilled nursing homes in the Los Angeles area will not treat HIV patients. Though the overwhelming majority of Friday’s participants appeared to support gay marriage, Sears stressed that the institute seeks to present both sides of the issue. For example, last year it and Brigham Young University in Utah co-sponsored debates on the topic.