In the last week, both Stanford and Yale Universities have announced significant expansions of the help that they provide to new parents -- with Stanford unveiling a plan for junior faculty members and Yale one for graduate students.
Those moves follow this month's announcement by Princeton University of substantially increased support for graduate students who are or become parents while working on their Ph.D.'s. And while the institutions capturing headlines are some of the wealthiest in the country, there is also a flurry of activity from other institutions specifically around the issue of helping academics who are trying to launch their careers while caring for young children. On Tuesday, the University of Kentucky formally approved plans to build two new child-care facilities near campus, to eventually house 250-300 children. Kenyon College is getting ready to open a new child-care facility later this year.
All of this activity reflects the reality that "one of the key issues for early career faculty is 'what do we do with the kid,'" said Cathy Trower, director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, a Harvard University-based project. Trower said she was particularly impressed with the Stanford plan for the way it sends a message to young faculty members that parenthood "is possible" to manage in an academic career.
Stanford's plan features new child-care grants — of $5,000-$20,000 annually — for junior faculty members. To be eligible for the awards, a faculty member must have a child aged 5 or younger; a spouse or same sex domestic partner who is working at least 30 hours a week or who is looking for work, is a full-time student or has a disability; and have a family adjusted gross income that does not exceed $174,999. The exact size of grants will vary by family income. For families with one or more additional children, the size of the grant would go up by $1,000.
Stanford's provost, John Etchemendy, in a statement announcing the plan, said that the "intersection of the biological clock and the tenure clock can place extraordinary pressures on young faculty, and I am convinced that it is at least one important reason the percentage of women in academia has remained stubbornly low," adding that he believed that "the affordability and availability of convenient, reliable child care has demonstrably higher stakes for this particular group than for any other subset of our population."
Mothers and fathers at Stanford have equal claim on the benefits, but the university -- like many others expanding benefits for young parents -- pays a lot of attention to the gender gap on the faculty. At Stanford, women accounted for 24.3 percent of the 1,806-member faculty in 2006, compared with 17.8 percent a decade earlier.
Yale's new policies, announced Friday, are for Ph.D. students. Yale will be let students suspend academic responsibilities for the semester in which a birth or adoption occurs, yet remain registered as students, receiving a full aid package as promised when admitted. Students who qualify may also be eligible for eight-week extensions of stipend support at the end of of their fifth year in a program.
Trower of Harvard said that the developments this month from Princeton, Yale, and Stanford -- while different -- show the "competitive nature of the market" for young talent. Institutions are increasingly starting to see that spending on family-related benefits may help them attract the best assistant professors or graduate students, she said.
While those universities all have mega-endowments, Trower said that the same competitive factors are playing out at other institutions, and that places that have expanded parental support find it an increasingly popular benefit. The State University of New York at Stony Brook had a waiting list that was too long for its child-care facility before it opened a new center in 2001. The new center increased capacity to 160 from 97, and while there are still sometimes waits to get in, the center is now largely meeting demand.
Other institutions that have for years placed an emphasis on "family friendly" policies report that if a college starts with an emphasis on child care, other work-life issues may follows. The University of Arizona's Work & Life Connections Program, covers child care and a range of other issues. Darci Thompson said she has numerous letters from faculty members talking about how they turned down positions elsewhere -- at institutions where they might have earned more or had better labs -- because of these benefits.
With regard to child care, the university offers vouchers based on employee salaries, but Thompson said one of the most significant benefits is for back-up child care, a need many colleges deal with only by providing referrals. At a cost of $2 an hour to the university employee, Arizona has an agency that will send a licensed care-giver to the faculty member's home to take care of a sick child or a child whose school has closed unexpectedly. Thompson said having a reliable, affordable system in place is crucial to faculty members who are parents of young children and could otherwise find themselves missing class or important meetings.
The university gives all employees access to one-on-one consultation -- free -- with a variety of wellness professionals. The situations faced by employees show the interaction of life and careers, Thompson said. The university's dietitian had a recent visit from a faculty member who gained a lot of weight during her tenure review, won tenure, and wanted to focus more on her health.
The next frontier for family benefits, Thompson said, may be help with care for elderly parents. Depending on the age of faculty members and their parents, some professors are facing child-care and senior care issues at the same time. For now, the university is offering sessions and referrals, but monetary benefits could follow. "For all employees to make the best possible contribution," Thompson said, "you need to look at the full work cycle and the full life cycle."