Princess Kate

Students and their children.

August 19, 2013

It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children…


This quote from Hubert Humphrey’s last speech is sometimes described as the “liberals’ mantra”. Whether liberal or not, Humphrey is correct in noting that it is not original. Throughout the years some variant of this adage has been attributed to everyone from Mahatma Gandhi, Samuel Johnson, and Cardinal Roger Mahoney, to Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul, and Pearl Buck, among others.


Politics and attributions aside, I have been thinking recently about what would happen if we decided to measure not just our nations and societies, but our colleges and universities by this standard as well? You might think that colleges and universities would do well by this measure – after all they are home to the best and the brightest – but some recent stories in the news suggest this may not necessarily be the case.


There is the widely reported incident at the City University of New York (CUNY) involving a 27 year old undergraduate honors student who was forced to quit her class after being denied the right to miss some assignments and tests in order to give birth. As a result of being forced to drop the class, she lost her merit-based scholarship.


A settlement reached in that case this spring has CUNY, one of the United States’ largest public systems, not only restoring the student’s scholarship but sending a memo to all faculty and administrators reminding them that under Title IX schools which receive government funding are required to give pregnant students the same opportunity to make up missed work as anyone who has been ill or injured.


I have also been thinking about this as along with the rest of the world I have watched the Duchess of Cambridge begin what may, under British law, amount to a 52- week maternity leave, 39 of them paid. Even her husband, Prince William, has the right to two weeks of paid leave and this isn’t just because they are royals, it applies to all new parents in Great Britain and most of the rest of the world with the glaring exception of the United States which remains the only Western industrialized nation not to mandate paid leave.


At 31, Kate Middleton is about the same age as many of our doctoral students. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reports that women Ph.D. candidates are on average 34 years old when they receive their degrees, which means that most will not get tenure until they are 41 years old. This also means that most of our female graduate students will be in the midst of their doctoral work and pursuing tenure during their child-bearing years. Unlike the Duchess, however, if they are working in the U.S. federal law does not guarantee them paid leave.


Under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act women working at a company with fifty (50) employees or more are guaranteed twelve weeks of unpaid leave. As a result the only women in the U.S. who get paid leave are women who either (a) happen to live in one of the three states that now mandate some form of paid leave (California, New Jersey, or Rhode Island) or (b) women who work for a company with a generous leave policy.


Since U.S. women who live in the 46 states that don’t mandate leave are essentially at the mercy of their employer, the question becomes how good of a job are colleges and universities doing when it comes to treating new parents and infants? We might, except that universities would be among the best places to find substantive and robust parental leave policies – but that is not necessarily the case. This is particularly true when we consider parental or maternity leave policies for the most important and vulnerable members of our community – our students. According to a 2008 study, while 58% of the 62 Association of American Universities (AAU) provide at least six weeks paid leave to faculty, only 13 percent offer similar policies for graduate students, post-doctoral students, or academic researchers. [http://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/issues/2009/11/pdf/women_and_sciences.pdf  ]


This not only has consequences for our graduate students and their families, but our institutions and the nation as a whole. Consider a 2010 study from the University of California at Berkeley which found that the absence of family friendly leave policies is one of the primary reasons why women Ph.D.’s in science leave the “pipeline”. According to the authors: “Family formation—most importantly marriage and childbirth—accounts for the largest leaks in the pipeline between Ph.D. receipt and the acquisition of tenure for women in the sciences….Our findings indicate that women in the sciences who are married with children are 35 percent less likely to enter a tenure track position after receiving a Ph.D. than married men with children.”


The study, “Staying Competitive: Patching America’s Leaky Pipeline in the Sciences,” [http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/technology/report/2009/11/10/6979/staying-competitive/ ] was prompted in part by an interest in understanding how America can be more competitive in the STEM fields and do a better job of attracting and maintaining a large pool of talent. Competitiveness in this area is something that the Obama administration has been committed to. Even in difficult economic times they have argued in favor of investing billions of dollars in this area via legislation such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Despite this, however, we have yet to see either this administration, or most previous administrations, consider a federal mandate requiring paid parental leave. It is hard to attribute this failure solely to the costs because states which have adopted these programs have shown that when set up like unemployment insurance the expense relatively minimal.


At a time when higher education is experiencing profound financial challenges there is no question that we have to be cognizant of the costs involved in adopting or expanding any policy. That said concern about finances should not stop us from at least having these types of conversations – both the broader one about how our institutions should be measured and the more specific, policy focused discussions about what we can do to make changes if we find we aren’t measuring up? I don’t know if the old adage repeated by Humphrey and so many others is the best way to judge how we are doing, it certainly isn’t the only way, but it’s not be a bad place to begin.

Jeanne Zaino is a professor of Political Science & International Studies at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY. She writes frequently on issues concerning women and higher education. You can reach her at jzaino@iona.eduor follow her on Twitter (@jeannezaino)


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