Don't Mess With the Kiddos

In reversal, Mount Holyoke says it will keep on-campus childcare center open -- for a year.

March 4, 2021
 
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Budget cuts, layoffs, burnout: a year into the pandemic’s hold on U.S. academe, faculty members aren’t getting too many wins. So Mount Holyoke College quickly scrapping a plan to shutter its on-campus childcare center stands out.

“First, let me say how deeply sorry I am,” Mount Holyoke president Sonya Stephens wrote in a campus memo this week, promising that the Gorse Children’s Center would not in fact close on June 30, as previously announced. Instead, Stephens said that the college had secured a one-year contract extension with the center’s corporate management partner, Bright Horizons, to ensure continued operations.

Stephens said the biggest flaw in the college’s plan to close the center, announced last week, was that it had no “clear plan for continuity of care.” Indeed, in recent days, enrolled families reported scrambling to secure spots in centers elsewhere in town and finding none were available. Several parents reported wait lists of a year or longer at alternate facilities, whereas they were given just four months' notice of the closure. Some professors also said the lack of transparency in the college’s decision making about the center was symptomatic of bigger faculty-administrative trust issues on campus, which were documented in a recent faculty satisfaction survey.

“As president, I take full responsibility for these errors, for the decision and for the enormous stress and turmoil it has caused,” Stephens said in her reversal announcement. “The college leadership team and I continue to examine the errors and lessons we have all learned from this experience, and we commit to establishing more collaborative processes for decision-making on issues of such consequence.”

Mount Holyoke initially said it was closing the center because an internal review found it presented equity issues. Specifically, the college only provides families a subsidy to the on-campus care center, and employees who send their children elsewhere for reasons including cost don’t get the same help. So instead of paying Bright Horizons $325,000 annually to manage the center, Mount Holyoke said it would add $100,000 to an existing emergency fund available to all employee families struggling with childcare needs.

Faculty and staff members immediately challenged that reasoning, however, accusing the administration of dressing up a blunt cost-cutting measure in language about equity. Some professors who would have qualified for the income-based childcare subsidy to the center said they never knew it existed, casting doubt on how many families benefit from the supposedly inequitable discount in the first place. Others faculty members of color said they felt safe sending their children to the on-campus center. And many said it was anything but equitable to be stripping hard-to-find childcare away from families during a crisis that has disproportionately impacted academic women -- especially at a women’s college.

Mount Holyoke faced additional criticism from local families who send their children to the center, saying closing it was a betrayal of community relations.

Calling the one-year contract extension an “interim solution,” Stephens in her email said the college “will maintain its commitment to expand financial support to all Mount Holyoke employees with young children in their care.” Any non-Gorse parents seeking support for childcare will be able to access the employee emergency fund beginning in July, she said.

“I know that all of my colleagues on the leadership team join me in making a firm commitment to do what will be required of each of us to restore trust and to move forward in our shared endeavors,” Stephens added.

Jessica Maier, an associate professor of art history at the center and a Gorse Children’s Center parent, said the Mount Holyoke administration was apparently doing some “soul-searching on how this mistake came about” and that she hoped the incident “is seen as a time to take stock of the shared governance process and to make transparency in decision making once again the norm.”

The contract extension is a “great relief” to center families and staff members, who will keep their jobs, and a “step in the right direction,” Maier continued. The one-year promise is not, however, “an explicit commitment to long-term, quality, on-campus childcare beyond next year.”

Only that, she said, “to me and to many others, would fully redress the situation and be consistent with Mount Holyoke's values.”

Kate Singer, associate professor of English, who sent her 7-year-old son to Gorse as a baby, toddler and preschooler and who still relies on the center for drop-in care during faculty meetings and more, said she appreciated Stephens’s apology. But the announcement falls short of a “direly needed commitment to financially sustainable on-campus childcare now and in the future,” she said.

“We need a creative, holistic vision for the college's financial and academic future, and that has yet to even be approached, in my mind,” Singer added. “Many of us feel this is a very special place, in part for the community among students, faculty, staff and the larger area, and that very much includes our childcare center.”

Mount Holyoke “has been a place that has allowed myself and all kinds of caregivers the ability to research, teach our students, learn from our students and have family and friends, too. I think in our world that is really something worth saving, building and hanging on to.”

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