GSU Delighted to Welcome Affordable Child Care to U of C Campus

First, the good news:
Thursday afternoon brought amazing news: an email in every doctoral student’s inbox from Deputy Provost Deborah Nelson bearing the subject line, “Need-based child care grants for doctoral students.” It looked so good that a few of us had to read it twice before daring to ask: could this really mean affordable child care for graduate student employees?

It sure looks like it. The Deputy Provost’s email outlines a number of concrete policy changes that collectively signal a huge victory for graduate students across the University of Chicago, and for Graduate Students United, whose 800-plus members can congratulate each other on having once again changed their university for the better. The central goal of our nearly three-year-long campaign to bring affordable child care to the University of Chicago appears to be in sight. As the Deputy Provost explains,

“This spring we will begin a pilot program to offer need-based child care grants to doctoral students, who typically have the greatest child care needs among our student body. […] It is our sincere hope that the grant pilot program will prove successful at helping to alleviate some of the financial hardship our student parents face and that we can launch it on an annual basis next fall.”

The flexibility of this childcare support is a wonderful thing, and we hope to see it thoroughly publicized, effectively allocated, and well-used by graduate student parents. We look forward to learning more about the eligibility requirements for these new need-based grants, and the amount of support they will offer. We also hope to see the policy expanded to include non-doctoral students, who were some of the founding members of our campaign and whose needs remain unmet through this measure.

This program for doctoral students is just one of several “initiatives to support graduate student parents” being rolled out this academic year — measures which will benefit every student parent regardless of their program, including a renewed effort to create workable lactation spaces for breastfeeding parents (the failings of the current ones having been detailed in an earlier post), and a move by the Family Resource Center into bigger, better digs.

All of this adds up to a welcome affirmation that the university no longer views child-rearing and academic labor as incompatible pursuits. In the Deputy Provost’s words, “the challenges of parenting are many, and I very much hope that these initiatives will make it more possible for you to find the right balance of your academic and familial joys and responsibilities.” Hear, hear!

Credit where credit is due:
We want to congratulate Lizanne Phalen, Brooke Noonan, Beth Niestat, and Deborah Nelson on their work to bring about these policy changes, which represent a major step forward for the University of Chicago. They have been our administrative partners in these efforts since GSU first launched its campaign for affordable child care back in the spring of 2011. Our first public event was a town-hall meeting to gauge how the issue of child care was affecting our members. The response was strong and enthusiastic, and over the next two and half years we joined forces with the Student Parent Organization to revive their ranks and build a campaign to improve services for student parents across the board. Here’s a quick look at what we did together:

  • Researched and produced a report documenting the need for affordable child care and other family-friendly policies at the University of Chicago

  • Raised awareness (including our own) of the harmful effects of the lack of affordable child care on campus, both to individual academic careers and to gender and class diversity at every level of scholarship (see, for example, this overview of Mary Ann Mason’s research)

  • Met with administrators, including the Deputy Provost, in July 2011, to alert them to flaws in the parental leave policy, and secured a commitment from them to fix it

  • Held a series of public family picnics (one was actuallya carnival) to highlight the existence of children, and parents, in the university’s scholarly community

  • Organized a drive to sign and deliver some 1,100 postcards (they were so beautiful!) to President Zimmer calling for affordable child care

  • Examined the causes cited to justify the university’s lack of affordable child care, including questioning the methodology used in official surveys to gauge students’ child care needs

  • Collaborated on op-eds and think-pieces exploring the practical and theoretical implications of our campaign for affordable child care in a university setting

  • Organized a panel of faculty, staff, and students on the structural obstacles to being a parent and a scholar, and how to fix them

  • Got media coverage in Inside Higher Ed and WBEZ for our push for better lactation spaces on campus for breastfeeding parents

In short, this latest announcement is the culmination of a great deal of hard work. All that work makes our success even sweeter. At the same time, we regret the lack of recognition for GSU’s role in bringing these changes about. While the Deputy Provost’s email obliquely acknowledges the role of “open meetings, focused discussions, and conversations with the leadership of the Student Parent Organization,” it neglects to mention Graduate Students United, whose members have driven this campaign over the course of three years and put in countless hours of work to bring about this victory. Although it’s gratifying to know that our advocacy was successful, we want recognition for the role of GSU in bringing about this change. This recognition is important because it allows the advent of affordable child care at the U of C to be recognized for what it is: a shared victory brought about by a collective effort on the part of graduate students working with administrators.

Onward to formal recognition: a better university is possible!
This string of happy announcements comes right on the heels of NYU graduate students’ historic vote to unionize. GSU’s latest victory on affordable child care — just like our earlier victories in doubling TA wages, improving healthcare, and freezing student fees — is a reflection of the growing power of graduate student unions at private university campuses across the country.

By issuing this missive full of promised improvements to our lives as graduate students, the administration may want to suggest that it always has the best interests of graduate students in mind and is busily devising new ways to better meet their needs. But the history of the campaign for affordable child care tells us otherwise; it shows us that students are their own best advocates, and that we need a strong collective voice to bring about meaningful improvements to the conditions of work and study on our campus. GSU already plays an instrumental role, if an unacknowledged one, in shaping these conditions.

In the wake of this victory, we want to highlight the potential for GSU and administrators to work together. Recognition for our work, and open collaboration in the many areas where students and administrators share common goals, would benefit the university as whole. Formal recognition as a union would be a further step in making GSU a more effective advocate for graduate student needs and a better working partner for university administrators.

At the close of her email, the Deputy Provost mentions “an ongoing series of initiatives to improve the graduate student experience with increased funding, an expanded Center for Teaching Excellence, and attention to effective advising and mentoring to help students with timely degree completion and successful job placement.”

Increased funding (a.k.a. wages and benefits), better support for our role as teachers, and better advising services (and perhaps even grievance policies?) — all wonderful and welcome news! We are delighted to see this level of administrative attention to areas where GSU has been steadily pushing for improvements. We take it as further evidence that GSU’s efforts are getting results, and we look forward to productive discussions about how to shape policies that do a better job of meeting student needs. If we can accomplish this much without either formal university recognition or direct collaboration from administrators, imagine how much more we could do with those things!

As we look forward to next steps in this and other campaigns, we also look forward to the day when we are recognized as a formal partner in shaping the university policies that affect us.

Optimistically,

Abhishek Bhattacharyya, Graduate Students United
Eleanor Bush, Graduate Students United and the Student Parent Organization
Molly Cunningham, Graduate Students United
Madeleine Elfenbein, Graduate Students United and the Student Parent Organization
Tamara Kamatovic, Graduate Students United
Claire Roosien, Graduate Students United and the Student Parent Organization
Jay Sosa, Graduate Students United
Anna Weichselbraun, Graduate Students United
Kaya Williams, Graduate Students United

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