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An American U. professor set off a debate over breast-feeding in class. Not everyone agrees on that issue, but most experts say colleges should make it easy for breast-feeding employees to pump. Are institutions doing their part?
A department chair tells a female faculty member that she cannot bring a breast pump to the building or use a cooler to store her breast milk because it would make the department building look like a cafeteria. Another faculty member at a different university is asked not to store her milk in the department refrigerator because people might mistake it for creamer.
The two examples are from Academic Motherhood: How Faculty Manage Work and Family, (Rutgers University Press) and illustrate how, despite growing acceptance, some academic mothers still find it difficult to negotiate challenges around breast-feeding and lactation issues.
These issues are in focus again thanks to a national debate set off when an American University professor breast-fed her sick infant in class, upsetting some of her students. Many universities -- including American -- provide “lactation resources.” But other campuses don’t have set policies and deal with related issues on an ad hoc basis, an approach questioned by many experts.
What can colleges and universities do when it comes to providing resources for breast-feeding mothers? Federal law dictates that reasonable accommodations be provided.
Ideally, lactation policy experts said, colleges should provide more resources. A 2011 paper titled "Lactation Accommodations in Higher Education" by the Breastfeeding Task Force of Greater Los Angeles, which looked at the lactation policies at some California public universities, lauded the University of California at Davis for its breast-feeding support practices. The university provides 35 rooms on its main campus, breast pumps, a lactation consultant and support groups for mothers, and follows design standards for such facilities.
Sandy Batchelor, work-life coordinator for UC Davis, said the university aims to have a lactation room available within a five-minute walking distance for any lactating mother on campus. “That means a lactation room in every or every other building,” she said. “Every new building has a lactation room built in. Older buildings have had rooms repurposed.” Many mothers with newborn infants might need to pump milk every three or four hours, Batchelor said.
But the same study found that most California State University campuses did not have a lactation policy. "[R]ather than showing support for employed mothers, the CSU system has remained silent on the issue, until the Affordable Care Act required them to provide lactation accommodations,” said Genevieve Colvin, program coordinator for the task force, in an e-mail.
According to the study, about 11,925 women in the CSU system (out of a total of 433,000 students and 44,000 faculty and staff) may be pregnant or lactating at any given time.
Michael Uhlenkamp, a spokesman for the CSU system said that the university did not have a systemwide policy for students or staff, but “several campuses as well as the chancellor’s office do offer facilities for use by nursing mothers.” He did not provide any other details.
The University of Arizona has set aside seven rooms for lactating mothers, said Caryn Jung, senior coordinator in the university’s office of Life and Work Connections. She said the university is looking to grow the number of rooms by working with different departments. The university also gives a $25 gift-coupon to mothers to buy or rent breast pumps, she said.
At American University, administrators will soon begin discussions with a group of faculty members who have requested that a committee talk about university policies and offerings for employees when it comes to lactating mothers, childcare and personal emergencies. Once scheduled, the discussions are also likely to address how best to communicate these policies to faculty and staff, a university spokeswoman said.
Kelly Ward, co-author of Academic Motherhood and department chair of educational leadership and counseling psychology at Washington State University, said many campuses still lack policies about lactation support. “But it is something that campuses are starting to look at more and more. Sometimes this is triggered by an individual having an incident and then the campus becomes more proactive,” Ward said.
And it is not enough to have a policy, Ward said. “Your employees should know about these policies, and should be able to use them,” she said.
Lisa Wolf-Wendel, professor of educational leadership at the University of Kansas and co-author of Academic Motherhood, said some female professors have told her of being asked by others in their departments to express milk in bathrooms. “I think that it is uncomfortable and unsanitary,” she said. “And it should not be in a janitor’s closet either.”
Wolf-Wendel said that despite all the advances, many academics are still not comfortable having open discussions about lactation policies. “Women are uncomfortable asking for help. Women who have had children and have the experience can rally around them. It takes guts to talk about it.”
Both authors pointed out that many tenured faculty members have separate offices, and may be able to pump in privacy. In contrast, adjuncts, graduate students, many community college professors and administrative staff share space and don't have that option.
“It is not a high-dollar expense. It is a room with a chair and a plug, but it is a way of showing that you care about your employees,” Wolf-Wendel said. “It sends an important message if you are trying to recruit and retain the best faculty and staff.”
Batchelor, the work-life coordinator at UC Davis, said it costs about $3,500 to set up a lactation room including a hospital grade breast-pump. "W]e generally repurpose furniture and that eliminates about $700 of that $3500,” she said.
Michele Vancour, president of the College and University Work/Family Association and associate professor of public health at Southern Connecticut State University, said that she frequently sees administrators on the association’s listserv asking for more information on lactation policies. “I think media attention has helped,” Vancour said. So have federal and state laws, and a call to action in 2011 by the Surgeon General to support breast-feeding.
“Many campuses continue to believe that setting up lactation rooms can be expensive. It is not about budget cuts, it is more of a mindset,” Vancour said. “There is a business case [staff recruitment and retention] to be made for breastfeeding.”
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