The University of Memphis campus is no longer going to serve as a playground.
Amid concerns about safety and class disruption, the university has issued a policy  that prohibits employees and students from regularly bringing their children on campus.
The need for the policy became apparent, faculty members said, as people began to notice groups of unsupervised kids around the university. Groups of children would regularly frolic in a fountain near the administration building. "It became a playground," said Sheryl Maxwell, associate professor of education and president of the Faculty Senate. “It was an accident waiting to happen.”
Ann Franke, a lawyer who has represented colleges and universities, said that because campuses are such inviting places, there “is growing concern about potential liability,” when kids roam the quads. “There have been serious injuries to children on campuses.”
It was not only unsupervised children that caused problems at Memphis. Faculty members and administrators said that regularly bringing kids to office hours or to class, whether by students or professors, had become a distraction in some cases.
Curt Guenther, a Memphis spokesman, noted that the policy still allows children on campus for sporting events, to take music lessons, and in emergency situations. "We realize that cars break down and babysitters come late, and sometimes kids have to come to class," he said.
One of the biggest problems, he said, was when the Campus School, for employees’ children in first through sixth grades, got out at 2:30 p.m. and kids would walk around campus unsupervised, many eventually popping in and potentially disrupting their parents’ office hours or class. “It’s an issue of safety, and our obligation to make this a learning environment as opposed to a child care environment,” Guenther said.
The university does have day-care for students’ children, but currently not for employees’ children. Faculty and staff members who kept their kids at work, or let them hang around after dismissal from the Campus School, will have to figure out new arrangements. Some of them are not looking forward to the added hassle.
“There’s been some grumbling that there’s nowhere else for children to go,” said Robert J. Frankle, associate professor of history. “Some faculty will have to leave a meeting to pick their kid up from Campus School and take them somewhere.”
Added LaTrella Thornton, organizational president of the National Coalition for Campus Children’s Centers, “That’s an issue for anyone with children, not just at a college.” She said that most campuses that provide day-care for students’ children also offer it for children of faculty members. “I’d like to see all universities look into that,” she said.
Indeed Memphis’s new policy comes at a time that many colleges are talking about how to become more “family friendly.” Many experts say that colleges need to be more flexible about balancing academic and family responsibilities if they want to be seen as good employers, especially by women, who tend even in progressive academic families to shoulder more child-care responsibilities than do men,
Memphis said it is committed to finding a reasonable solution, and is considering day-care for employees’ children, among other solutions. Guenther said it “would be awfully nice to have something for them on or near campus.”
Despite some inconvenience, faculty members generally seem to think a policy was needed. Maxwell said that the Memphis campus has become like “libraries and Wal-Mart in Memphis, where parents,” many not associated with the institution, “just dump their children off.” Maxwell said university employees were concerned that children could get hurt or even abducted, or just be generally inappropriate.
She recalled one instance where an unsupervised child, who had apparently been given a diaper by a parent, brought the diaper to a staff member and asked to be changed. She said that now unsupervised kids might be treated more like abandoned children.
In the most extreme case she could think of, Franke said one institution has taken to calling child-welfare authorities in the case of an unsupervised child. “This doesn’t seem that extreme,” she said. “It might be nice to have short-term drop off centers of child-care on campus, but it certainly isn’t [the university’s] obligation.”
Thornton noted that providing day-care could be an excellent faculty recruitment tool. “It would be a draw,” she said. In the absence of on-site care, though, she felt that, with “no one looking out for them” on campus, kids should not be allowed to stream in to classes or offices. “If there’s a class, or a schedule conflict, that’s something [parents] have to work out. And everyone with children has to deal with that.”