For GSAS Parents, a Baby Balancing Act

Speaking before an audience that boasted three babies, two strollers, a few toy trains, a miniature car, and about 30 of their fellows, graduate student officials sounded off on a range of issues affecting parents enrolled at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) yesterday.

The presentation detailed findings of a months-long study aimed at addressing concerns including insufficient leave time, unbalanced departmental treatment, and prohibitively priced childcare.

“Most departments have no idea what student parents are doing,” said presenter Karen M. Ruff, referencing the motivations for the study. “The students don’t tell them; the departments don’t survey them.”

Garth O. McCavana, the GSAS associate dean for student affairs, called the 80-page report “very well-prepared” and a “good spur to us to push [parental policies] forward,” while cautioning that a better deal for student parents might have to wait on University officials.

But with students continuing to face parenthood with no pay or health insurance, some are not content to wait.

“There’s still this feeling that people should suck it up, that you do this,” said Christine Wenc, who helped start the GSAS Student-Parents Organization that worked on the report. “Asking people to put their family on hold for 5-10 years? This isn’t a monastery any more, this is [2008].”


Part of the problem, according to the report, is the lack of any official policy on parental leave, which leaves many student parents at the whims of their advisers.

“Traditionally no one wants to go on leave because that would mean diverting yourself from research, taking yourself away from health care and your stipend,” said Kyle M. Brown, president of the Graduate Student Council. “So departments and advisers make accommodations that are sort of under the table.”

Sometimes students have felt compelled to forgo the process altogether, Ruff said, recalling the experience of one GSAS parent who decided to keep her pregnancy quiet.

“Her adviser never knew she had a baby. She timed it when her adviser was away, and she was only gone three weeks,” Ruff said. “That’s just depressing.”

But even those closer with their advisers find the competing demands of research obligations and a doctoral dissertation deadline inhibitive, and thus tend to come back to work before they say they’re ready.

In response, GSAS recently introduced a rule that extends key graduate school deadlines by a year for new parents.

But the survey found that many students remain unaware of this ‘G-clock’ rule and most departments don’t apply it automatically.

Brown said yesterday that despite the report’s litany of recommendations, extended awareness of the rule would likely be the best student parents can hope for in the near future.

“We’ve really had no promises [of change],” Brown said. “The most promising thing is the G-clock policy, which really is already a policy. Immediately, I think that’s the stuff that we’ll get the most traction on.”


Strong disparities between the accommodation policies across disciplines and departments were also detailed in the report.

The survey of 101 student parents—approximately 40 percent of graduate student parents—said 40 percent of student mothers lacked health insurance and 50 percent saw their stipends lapse while on leave.

Although all surveyed students in the sciences reported receiving some form of stipend while on parental leave, less than 10 percent of those in the humanities could make similar claims.

The report said the survey remained valid, despite the low response rate, because respondent data matched data for the overall student parent population provided by GSAS administrators.

And though only 19 of the 56 degree-granting departments provided feedback for the study, Ruff offered her own take on departmental attitudes.

“There are departments that give mothers single offices, so that they can bring their kid in and they can nurse, and they don’t have to walk to Holyoke Center to pump milk,” Ruff said. “And then there are departments that are like, ‘Go have fun in the library carrels.’”

But despite the apparently uneven treatment, the night yielded some encouraging stories. Around 75 percent of mothers across all disciplines said that their advisers were “understanding,” according to the report.

At least one mother had recollections of an adviser going even further.

“My adviser has been very supportive,” said Petra M. Gelbart, a graduate student parent who insisted her adviser, Nancy Shafman, be mentioned by name. “She really went out of her way to make parents and kids feel welcome by bringing toys, setting up a toy box, and even giving us car seats.”


Parent group founder Wenc attributed the emergence of parents’ issues at Harvard to former University President Lawrence H. Summers’ controversial remarks about women in science in 2005.

At the time, few of Harvard’s peer institutions had generous parental leave policies, she said.

But in Jan. 2005, Summers’ comments concerning the intrinsic aptitude of women in science and technology ignited a storm of controversy and a national debate about women in academia.

“Great, thank you President Summers, you didn’t mean to do it, but I think this is going to be your legacy,” Wenc said. “That’s what gave a lot of that a good kick in the butt. Those statements threw the entire country, and this became a huge issue.”

Following the fierce response to his comments, Summers commissioned two task forces on women in academia, which led to the creation of a University-wide office on Faculty Development and Diversity, charged with improving faculty diversity across the University.

“I think that we are very well poised to capitalize on that moment,” Ruff said. “There are organizations like HGWISE [Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering] that didn’t exist before that month.”

“It was a catalyst,” Brown agreed, “to get things started.”


After last night’s presentation, Brown said the issues stirred up by the President’s office three years earlier would have to find their resolution back in Mass. Hall.

“The next idea is to drop a copy of the report off in [Faust’s] office and hopefully schedule a meeting,” Brown said.

While recognizing the challenges of considering issues on a University level, GSAS official McCavana said the pieces might be in place for improvement.

“Can things get bogged down?” McCavana asked rhetorically. “Sure they can, but I think it depends on where people’s priorities are and I think that this is a priority of President Faust’s administration.”

It was the “bogged-down” scenario that appeared to concern the assembled parents last night, as they frequently interrupted Brown and Ruff to share complaints of GSAS’s sluggish response.

“It’s a frickin’ ridiculous timescale,” Brown said, talking about the challenges of getting all the University’s “players in the same room.”

But despite the task ahead, the parents and officials in attendance last night found a few moments for laughter.

When Brown, an organismic and evolutionary biology student, pointed to a bar graph and noted a spike in new fathers among fourth-year graduate students, he hazarded a creative hypothesis.

“That’s about a year after they take their qualifying exams, so that’s a bit, well...” Brown trailed off. “I’ll just leave it up to you.”

—Staff writer Christian B. Flow can be reached at

—Staff writer Clifford M. Marks can be reached at