Not Just ‘A Place to Park Our Offspring’

Mount Holyoke pulls rug out from under faculty parents in announcing closure of its campus childcare center.

March 1, 2021
 
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Mount Holyoke College abruptly informed staff and faculty members last week that it is shutting down the longtime on-campus childcare center in June. Faculty members say they’re disgusted, dismayed and even “embarrassed” by the college’s decision, which Mount Holyoke framed as an issue of equity.

The college says too few people benefit from the Gorse Children’s Center, for which it offers subsidies to employees with household incomes of $85,000 or less. But the equity argument is rich, even infuriating, to some faculty members, who say that Mount Holyoke has no meaningful plan for offering more families more help with childcare.

Mount Holyoke says it is adding money to an emergency fund for all parents -- not just center families -- struggling with childcare. But disrupted professors struggling to find available childcare slots elsewhere say that one-time grants won't help them.

That Mount Holyoke is a women’s college cutting off childcare during a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted academic women adds to the insult -- and, in the case of families now searching for new childcare options and finding none, to the panic.

Numerous faculty members who may have qualified for the subsidy on which Mount Holyoke based its equity argument also say they were never made aware of that option. So it’s unclear who was benefiting in the first place.

“This is evacuating 50-plus toddlers in the middle of pandemic. It’s immoral on so many levels,” said Elif Babül, an associate professor of anthropology whose 6-year-old child attended the center before moving on to kindergarten and whose 1-year-old is scheduled to begin there today, after a COVID-19-related delay; the center reopened in October but is operating at reduced capacity to allow for social distancing. “This, for a women’s liberal arts college, is shameful.”

Late Sunday, Mount Holyoke president Sonya Stephens emailed employees to say the college was rethinking its plan to close the center, but she made no long-term promises.

"Your disappointment, distress and anger have been heard -- by me, by the trustees, and by the leadership team," Stephens wrote. "Over the weekend, we engaged in a challenging but necessary interrogation of our decision, as well as of the process leading up to it."

The college is now "actively exploring a viable bridge solution to offer on-campus early education through next academic year," with the goal of supporting the Mount Holyoke families who already send their children to the on-campus center and who have committed to enrolling their children this spring. 

Stephens added, "The leadership team and I are currently in discussion about how we might minimize the stress on and disruption to these families, and we hope to have more information to share soon."

No Viable Alternatives

Babül’s spouse works out of state, meaning she functions as a single parent during the week. Mount Holyoke’s childcare center was supposed to be the linchpin in her Monday-to-Friday schedule, as Babül said it’s the only local facility that will collect her son after elementary school and care for him until she can pick up both children, together, at closing time. The center is also the only local facility that has morning drop-in hours for parents’ early meetings, and which will watch non-enrolled children during faculty and staff meetings, she said.

Babül is looking for other options but said that each facility she’s contacted has a wait list, higher fees than Mount Holyoke’s -- even though her family receives no subsidy -- or is unreasonably far away.

“There is nothing available,” she said. “Everywhere I’ve looked is $300 to $500 more expensive per month. I have no idea what I’m going to do.”

Mount Holyoke’s initial announcement about the center closure says, “As an institution founded with women at the center of the educational experience, our commitment to supporting employees with childcare needs is resolute.” But a recent review of on-campus childcare “revealed significant inequities in our approach.” The college provides a direct subsidy to some employees, it said, but “because the tuition at Gorse remains among the highest in the area, even those eligible for the subsidy often find more affordable alternatives. This subsidy is not portable and can only be used at Gorse.”

Mount Holyoke also said it underwrites the center’s operations by about $325,000 annually via a direct payment to Bright Horizons, the corporation that manages the center.

Equity in Doubt

“It has become clear that this approach provides outsized support to a very small subset of employees who choose and can afford the campus-based facility,” the announcement says. The college’s cabinet is therefore ending its contract with Bright Horizons on June 30, suspending center operations and adding $100,000 to the Employee Emergency Fund to reach employee parents of young children beyond those who attend the on-campus center.

Mount Holyoke plans to convene a group of faculty, staff and students to “seek feedback about the campus community’s specific childcare needs and make recommendations for the future.” The stated goal of future programs is to “ensure more equitable use of the college’s financial resources to provide the flexibility necessary to serve today’s families and to make these resources available to a larger number of employees.”

Ten Mount Holyoke families are currently enrolled in the center, and seven more plan to enroll soon, according to information from Mount Holyoke, as the facility continues to operate at reduced capacity. Some faculty members say the current total is actually higher. Many more employees' children have attended the center over the years, and other families continue to look to the center for drop-in care. Gorse serves families from the greater South Hadley, Mass., community, as well.

The closure announcement also noted that the center historically served the Mount Holyoke’s psychology and education departments as a lab space. But the center is no longer integral to those curricula, it said.

In response to questions about the move, Mount Holyoke said in a statement Friday that after "careful consideration and exploration of alternatives, the college has made the very difficult decision to not renew its contract with Bright Horizons, which manages the Gorse Children’s Center, and to suspend on-campus childcare operations on June 30.”

The news is “deeply disappointing to many -- particularly the Mount Holyoke families and community members that have benefitted from on-campus childcare provided over the years and current and former students who have studied and worked at the center,” the college said. Mount Holyoke “has made arrangements to provide financial support for employee childcare for all eligible faculty and staff in the coming year. Previously, financial support was available only to employees who chose on-campus childcare.”

Jessica Maier, an associate professor of art history whose children attend the center, is now scrambling to arrange alternative care, as well. She said infant care is the nonexistent “unicorn” of the local childcare scene, and that she’s therefore lucky her youngest child no longer needs it. Still, her budding toddler has been wait-listed elsewhere -- until approximately 2022.

Demanding Other Options

“What we have here is a big mess that needs to be cleaned up. This is women’s college that is professedly progressive that is leaving so many of its staff and faculty employees in the lurch for childcare that they nominally support … I just can’t understand what they were thinking. Temporarily shut down the daycare and then we’ll take stock and see what the next steps are?”

Mount Holyoke offered a Zoom listening session last week, led by Shannon Gurek, vice president for finance, after which several faculty members described being “stonewalled.” The college didn’t elaborate on its equity argument at the meeting, faculty members said, but did admit to making its decision with Bright Horizons months ago and keeping it from parents to avoid a flight of both parents and employees from the center.

The college has published a list of parenting resources and blogs for employees and says it’s launching an interactive learning hub with pre-K-12 lesson plans and remote learning resources. But without any actual childcare plan, many faculty members worry the college is hoping to close the center for good, and that their collective outrage will be channeled into finding individual and ultimately lasting solutions for their children.

Beyond the impact on families like her own, Maier said, “the largest issue here may be the lack of transparency and the way this decision was made. There was no public discussion; it just came down from on high. The trust that faculty and staff have in the administration was already shaky, and this is being seen as a real betrayal.”

Maier added, “So many of our colleagues who are not parents or who are not involved with the Gorse Center are also up in arms.”

Some 150 faculty and staff members have signed a petition to Mount Holyoke demanding that it present by this week several concrete proposals to keep the center running. Faculty members said they’re not attached to Bright Horizons and some would even prefer that the school be managed locally.

“Gorse has not just been a place to park our offspring during the day. It is a place to feel that they are safe, loved, and nearby,” the petition says. “For many of us, this is a devastating blow to our professional lives, our children’s wellbeing, and to the role of Mount Holyoke as a positive community presence and progressive institution.”

Ali Aslam, an assistant professor of politics, said he would have qualified for the subsidy when he started at Mount Holyoke in a visiting position but that he never benefited because no one told him about it. Even so, Aslam said the childcare center was one of the first things he asked about during his recruitment -- and one of the reasons he’s been so happy at Mount Holyoke.

A Community -- and a Lifeline

Aslam said even though his children were for a long time the only nonwhite children at the center, they were always welcomed and never made to feel different for speaking Urdu as well as English or otherwise being of two cultures. His children also benefited from the diversity of student teachers who worked at the center through their studies at Mount Holyoke, he said.

Describing the children’s center as a true community for children and parents, Aslam said, “One of the last photos I have before this pandemic closed everything down is from a Friday night dinner at the dining hall. We’d pick up our kids, meeting up with other parents, and walk over. We’d see my students, who knew my kids by name.”

To Aslam’s points, the employee petition says the closure “robs us of a crucial recruitment and retention tool for hiring junior faculty and faculty with families,” it says. “Furthermore, faculty of color at Mount Holyoke regard Gorse as one of the more appealing and safer childcare options in the area, with a diversity that -- however limited -- reflects the diversity of faculty and staff at the college.”

The petition also says Mount Holyoke stands to become the only college in the local Five College Consortium (including Smith, Amherst and Hampshire Colleges and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) without affiliated childcare.

The document cites pre-existing data suggesting that women are among the least happy professors at Mount Holyoke and in need of more family assistance, not less. An internal summary of those and other data, which were collected by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University, says the college suffers from “a crisis of leadership” stemming from “the fact that Mount Holyoke lacks two basic ingredients necessary for effective governance: a shared vision for the future of the institution and trust in our leaders and decision-making processes. Leaders must thus work to restore trust and bring our community together around a shared vision.”

Beyond the fight at Mount Holyoke, parents and especially mothers in academe are struggling. A recent study of thousands of academics published as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, for instance, found that having a child correlates with a significant reduction in research time for both men and women, with the effects doubled for women. Women lose about an hour of research time per day more than childless men do. This lost time is mirrored by a disproportionate increase in time spent on childcare and other housework.

James Harold, chair of philosophy and a former Gorse parent, who has spoken out against the closure, said he’s “not sure how I could have gotten tenure without Gorse. When I had young children, the presence of high-quality childcare located on campus, with hours that match Mount Holyoke's calendar, was critical to my ability to balance work and family.”

While his family won't be directly impacted by the change, he added, “it would be a tragedy for the talented staff at the [center], for the parents and for the college, if Gorse were to close.”

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