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Child Care for All!

Harvard must support student parents

By Madeleine M. Schwartz

In 2010, Harvard cancelled the Doctoral Child Care Student Scholarship Program, a pilot program aimed at graduate student parents with a household income below $80,000. Representatives of the University told The Crimson that the program was not benefitting enough people and that a working group was “actively exploring new strategies to support doctoral student parents.”

But rather than expand the program or set up an equivalent, the University now offers no financial support for its graduate student parents. This has widened an already enormous gap in privileges offered to the schools’ faculty and its students. Such a lack of support is distressing and destructive. Harvard must support its student parents by extending the benefits currently offered only to faculty.

Harvard does a tremendous job of providing for faculty and staff with children. Harvard employees are eligible to set aside $5,000 pre-tax in order to pay for child care. Ladder faculty—that is to say assistant, associate, and full professors—who have a household income of less than $175,000—can receive up to $20,000 a year if they have children under the age of six. There’s also a program for back-up emergency care. Faculty can even apply to grants for extra travel expenses so that children can accompany their parents on academic trips away from Cambridge. Such initiatives may well be  partly accountable in part for the growing number of female professors.

But for graduate students in doctoral programs—that is, those studying to become professors—the picture is strikingly different. Not considered full employees of the University, graduate students are ineligible for the child care support offered to its staff. The cost of child care at a Harvard—affiliated care center—around $2,000 a month and more for infants—often surpasses a graduate school stipend, about $20,000 a year, depending on the division. Harvard does not have a consistent parental leave policy for its graduate students, so what resources are available is up to the whim of the department. One student I talked to received a paid maternity leave and her own office where she could nurse; another was told that if she gave birth immediately before exam period, she would still have to act as a proctor.

The weight of Harvard’s current policies falls disproportionally on women. According to a survey put together by a number of graduate students in 2008, about 30 percent of student fathers had a stay—at—home partner; no student mother had a stay—at—home partner. And where most fathers took less than a month off or no time at all, only 15 percent of student mothers were able to return to work a month after giving birth.

The survey, of course, does not account for women who left their graduate programs after realizing that it would not support their needs or those who never applied, figuring becoming an academic and raising a child were incompatible.

Harvard is well aware of the important role affordable child care plays in retaining women in academia. The 2005 Report from the Task Force on Women in Science and Engineering stated that “child care needs influence many women to drop out of the academic pipeline,” and urged the University to “create new childcare scholarships for doctoral students and increase the amount awarded to postdoctoral fellows.” “Before the financial crisis struck in 2008, GSAS was close to approving a proposal for expanded assistance to graduate student parents,” Jeff Neal, an FAS spokesperson wrote in an email.

But since then, the school has not put forth a full support system, citing the financial crisis as a pretext. “Our emphasis now is on helping students meet their needs by making sure we are fully exploiting existing resources and by opening robust lines of communication with departments,” Neal wrote.

This pretext does not hold up to scrutiny. Most universities of equivalent academic caliber and with smaller endowments, such as MIT and Stanford, offer paid maternity leave to student mothers; Princeton offers up to $5,000 of child care support to any student parent. As an extreme example, the University of California at Berkeley, whose state educational system has been going through a severe crunch, reserves spaces in its child care programs for student parents, on a sliding scale, and gives up to $900 a semester in reimbursements.

By contrast, the only real service offered by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences is a “G-clock extension,” by which the administration’s measure of a student’s progress can be held for one year. This is hardly a solution; it is not equivalent to paid parental leave. Harvard’s most recent innovation—a website called the WATCH Portal (launched last week)—“connects parents and student caregivers” but offers no financial aid. It almost goes without saying that the other resources noted in an email from Neal—mentoring, advising, and “family friendly activities” at Dudley House—do not in any concrete way address the fact that, without economic support, the University is tacitly asking women to choose between parenting and an academic career.

Harvard must offer support on all levels of academic development, not just once its students become faculty. An extension of existing benefits would not only aid current student parents but also increase the diversity of future faculty. Otherwise, the University might as well be blunt about its implicit position: Female students can’t have children if they hope to advance in academia.

Madeleine M. Schwartz ’12 is an history and classics concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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