Family First: Child-Friendly Policies Are Gradually Becoming the Norm at Colleges and Universities across the Country

By Stewart, Pearl | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, August 25, 2016 | Go to article overview

Family First: Child-Friendly Policies Are Gradually Becoming the Norm at Colleges and Universities across the Country


Stewart, Pearl, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


By Pearl Stewart

Times are changing and colleges and universities are scrambling to keep up--at least when it comes to family benefits for employees, including graduate students who work as research and teaching assistants.

Provisions that attract and retain young scholars are essential, and expected, in today's competitive world of academia. Parental leave for new mothers and fathers and on-campus lactation facilities are becoming the norm as parents strive to combine work and family life.

In April, the Graduate Student Senate at The University of Texas at Arlington passed a resolution calling for the university to plan for graduate teaching and research assistants to receive maternity or paternity leave while they are under contract.

Graduate benefits

For Vivian Ta, a UT Arlington Ph.D. student in psychology, the resolution represented a major step. She is president of the Graduate Student Senate, and it was that organization's first resolution since 2007. "If anything, this resolution sends a message to the administration that it would definitely help graduate students who have children, or are planning to have families, to transition through parenting and through their studies as well," Ta told Diverse a month after the resolution was passed.

Many other universities already have similar policies, which the UT Arlington graduate students researched for six months before voting on the measure. One of those institutions, Purdue University, states on its website that its policy is "to provide Paid Parental Leave to benefits-eligible employees, including graduate student employees, due to the birth of an employee's child or the placement within an employees home of an adopted child."

At the University of Iowa, graduate students who are experiencing a new child entering the home and have a teaching or research assistantship may be eligible for paid and unpaid leaves, according to university policy, "although the UI does not adjust the time-to-degree clock for graduate student parents."

Seven years ago, an often cited report, "Staying Competitive: Patching Americas Leaky Pipeline in the Sciences," by Marc Goulden, Karie Frasch and Mary Ann Mason, called upon academia to improve in this area.

"Universities need to adopt baseline family responsive policies for all of their classes of researchers--not just faculty. Graduate student researchers and postdoctoral scholars receive the most limited benefits and are arguably the most important in affecting the future of U.S. science," the report stated.

Ta said the UT Arlington Graduate Student Senate "felt that our needs as parents were not really being addressed. Those of us who work in research and teaching assistantships should have the same rights and same policies of maternity and paternity leave that people have in other places of employment." She said the resolution has been sent to the president for review.

Lactation stations

Lactation facilities are another family-focused benefit becoming commonplace on campuses. In the early 2000s, a number of publicized incidents involving breastfeeding mothers on college campuses as well as more research papers on the subject brought attention to the lack of private spaces.

As part of the Affordable Care Act enacted in 2010, the Fair Labor Standards Act was amended to require employers to provide reasonable break time and a private place for nursing mothers to express milk while at work. Further, in 2011, "The Surgeon Generals Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding" pointed out that "only a quarter of U.S. employers provide breastfeeding employees with a place to express breast milk at the workplace."

The number, size and appearance of the lactation rooms vary from campus to campus--some have plush furnishings, multiuser pumps, refrigerators and sinks, and may be used for breastfeeding or pumping, while others are sparsely furnished and allow pumping only. …

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