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On Being a Graduate Student and a Parent

By Nancy Khalil, Bryan McAllister-Grande, and Kirsten Wesselhoeft

"I brought my son to campus once, and it was clear he was not welcome," said a friend. "Why? Did they tell you he wasn't allowed in the department?" she was asked. "No," she replied, "but it was clear in my interactions that there was something unnatural about it. Why do I want to expose him to that toxicity?"

As parents and graduate workers at Harvard, we knew we would face challenges balancing work and family. But challenges like this always turn out to be much more difficult than predicted. Now that we have spent some time here at Harvard, we see clearly that the lack of a robust set of family-friendly policies for graduate student employees often forces individuals to choose between an academic career and starting or continuing a family. To make matters worse, research has repeatedly shown that these challenges disproportionately impact women, and hamper the academic careers of mothers. These unnecessary barriers undermine accessibility to and completion of Harvard’s graduate programs and, in the process, weaken Harvard’s ability to be a leader in supporting academic families

This is one among many reasons for forming a union of graduate employees. We hope to address these types of barriers to the academic workforce by bargaining for access to childcare subsidies, a semester of paid family leave, and more affordable dependent healthcare coverage, all of which would make Harvard a more inclusive and family-friendly institution.

Let’s start with healthcare. Healthcare costs have risen at unsustainable rates. Healthcare for a dependent child through the Harvard plan costs roughly $2,868 per year, in addition to $3,432 for the primary subscriber, and $2,768 for the facilities fee (the latter two past the fourth year of study). These fees can add up to over three months of the 12-month compensation for many Harvard graduate employees, before even considering other family-related expenses, like childcare.

Childcare costs make this equation worse, since Massachusetts has higher costs than any other state in the country, especially for infants. Graduate students are ineligible for state-run childcare aid, and while Harvard employees (including lecturers, post-docs, etc.) can apply for childcare subsidies from the university, graduate students cannot. Even if we could win one of the few spots in Harvard’s childcare centers, full-time infant daycare costs for the lowest income range would be $2,232 per month, nearly the entire monthly salary of a typical graduate employee. That’s if the daycare has a spot—many have wait lists.

Moreover, parental leave policies are not yet uniform across the Harvard schools, with some schools only now developing an official parental leave policy, and others with no leave policy at all. Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences currently offers grads either six weeks of paid leave or a check of six weeks pay at a two-section teaching load if they do not take leave after the birth of a child. Students only receive this check if they continue working and take no leave around childbirth, or if they are on stipend or fellowship during the semester their child is born. This is a significant improvement over nothing, but it is not on par with our peer institutions, like Princeton, which offer graduate student birth mothers and primary caregivers a full additional semester of stipend-level funding following the birth of a child.

We do not want to give the impression that Harvard graduate student parents are worse off than other parents, or that it is impossible to have children in graduate school, or impossible to do so without support from a high-earning partner. Many of us take on these challenges every day. However, we firmly believe that Harvard can do better.

We believe that with a recognized union and collective bargaining, we could make the kinds of improvements—as unions have done at New York University and more than 60 public universities across the United States—Harvard would be more accessible to graduate students of all genders with families.

Legally and ethically, a commitment to gender equality necessitates the equal access of parents and non-parents to graduate education. A union could help bring Harvard's resources for graduate student parents in line with those at our peer institutions, and in line with Harvard's own resources for other employee parents. It could also help foster a more humane and supportive atmosphere in the academy as a whole.

Nancy Khalil is writing her dissertation in the Anthropology Department of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Bryan McAllister-Grande is an advanced doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Education. Kirsten Wesselhoeft is a Ph.D. candidate in the Committee on the Study of Religion in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

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