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New Buildings and Old Mindsets at Harvard Kennedy School

I’ve led soldiers in combat, managed a multi-billion-dollar construction program, launched companies, and orchestrated disaster response missions overseas. But juggling my responsibilities as a parent while attending the Harvard Kennedy School has been the hardest task of all.

Last December, the Kennedy School officially grew by 91,000 square feet, but not one was designated for childcare. During the official opening of the new buildings, Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf said, “This moment is going to be a transformative one for the Kennedy School.” But was the moment truly transformative, or is the place just a little bigger?

As a premier training ground for public leaders, the Kennedy School still does not take a forward-leaning approach to family-inclusive culture by providing childcare facilities for its students or employees. This is particularly important given the relatively large number of students at the Kennedy School. Unfortunately, the example our future leaders see from the Kennedy School leadership is one of tacit indifference to families and children.

When my husband was a mid-career masters' student in public administration from 2013 to 2014, we enjoyed the evening forums and opted into social events. We didn’t have kids then, so we never realized the challenges of student parents—until I joined the Mid-Career Master in Public Administration cohort myself in 2017.

I applied to the Kennedy School while nursing my newborn daughter. Cradling a baby in one arm while typing with one free hand was no easy feat. With a husband in the military who deployed to the Middle East, I tried my best to serve as a loving parent while recovering from childbirth. With that husband now stationed in North Carolina, being a geographically single parent at the Kennedy School is another challenge.

After receiving the Kennedy School acceptance letter, I called dozens of childcare facilities—Harvard’s childcare program included—but found no guaranteed slot. I was put on waitlists without the assurance that I would have childcare before my program began.

Full-time monthly tuition rates for an infant at the childcare centers near Harvard during the 2017-2018 academic year ranged from $2,782 to $3,016 per month—with limited subsidies or discounts for Kennedy School students. Graduate students are not eligible for childcare subsidies from the state. Had I been granted a childcare slot, I would have been forced to take out more loans to afford it.

After a teary night explaining to my family that I would decline the Kennedy School’s admission offer because I was unable to find childcare, my mother decided to resign from her job at the Department of Commerce in Boulder, Colo. to come to Massachusetts to help take care of my daughter. An unconditionally supportive family who made huge sacrifices has allowed me to make my Kennedy School opportunity work. Not everyone is this fortunate.

The Kennedy School appears to want to lean forward with parent-friendly policies. In July 2017, another mid-career MPA student and I elaborated the need for more lactation spaces to the Kennedy School’s leadership and facilities department by explaining our difficulty accessing only one lactation room. Its usage required us to fill out forms, request time through online scheduling, and its location on the top floor of a building takes us over ten minutes to reach. We also drew the leadership’s attention to the passage of a bill in the House last March. That bill, H.R. 1174: Fairness for Breastfeeding Mothers Act of 2017, would require most federally-run buildings to provide lactation rooms. Though it has only passed the House, it sends a powerful signal about the importance of lactation spaces.

In response, a Kennedy School administrator told us that the Kennedy School would likely construct a suite of lactation spaces and provide additional, more accessible nursing space throughout the Kennedy School campus. Student parents graduating in 2018 won’t benefit from these lactation spaces, and affordable childcare remains an issue, but I’m hopeful these supposedly-planned spaces are a move toward a more family-inclusive culture. We have much further to go, however, to allow talented parents of all socioeconomic backgrounds to be able to apply and attend the Kennedy School.

The Kennedy School should lead by example by demonstrating how to treat the people we serve. Families are the cores of our communities and countries: They are the reason public servants exist. They should not be an afterthought in our planning. With concerted effort, we can have more student parents with partners and families who all feel welcome coming through the doors to learn and grow.

Public servants and policy makers should not have to choose between having a family and having professional learning and development. More importantly, the Kennedy School should not discourage talent from even entering the applicant pool because its childcare situation is abysmal. Meeting prospective student demand for childcare would show the world that Harvard leans forward in its diversity and inclusion. Right now, the Kennedy School’s inaction shows public servants that they can serve the public and make the world a better place, but only if they don’t have a family.

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us,” Elmendorf said at the buildings’ opening, echoing Winston Churchill. Why then don’t we use resources and space to allow student parents and partners to thrive during their time at the Kennedy School so they can really go back out into the world and make it better?

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Alex L. Glade is a first-year master in public administration candidate at the Kennedy School.

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