Childcare for Faculty: The Babar in the Room

by Kiernan Mathews

working parents with infantI was recently contacted by Colleen Flaherty at Inside Higher Ed about plans for meeting the childcare needs of faculty now and in the coming months. After casting around for an answer, I’ve found very little to share with her--and that absence of a plan might end up being the story.  

With this post, I wanted to share a report of my (thin) findings, float a local solution—just a sketch of a solution, really—and invite reactions, hare-brained schemes or better ideas from you academic leaders who are in the thick of it.  


Faculty Childcare Needs: Context 

In the last 18 months, COACHE has gathered about 27,000 responses from faculty at 80 institutions who have enrolled in our primary study, the Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey (FJSS). It’s not a representative sample of higher education in the U.S., but it’s likely that faculty at these institutions—public and private, urban and rural, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and research universities—are not very different in their family makeup than are faculty everywhere in this country. In broad strokes, this is what I can tell you about them: 

  • 52.6% are parents 
  • 15.8% (of all faculty) are parents of an infant, toddler, or pre-school child 
  • 33.2% (of all faculty) are parents of a school-aged child (including high school) 
  • 15.7% (of all faculty) are parents of a college student 
  • 12.3% (of all faculty) are caregivers for a dependent adult 

Many of these respondents appear in multiple categories given children of different ages, etc. This information comes from a pull of the 2019 and 2020 FJSS administrations. If anyone offers me or a member of my team a good research question, COACHE can produce data tables by race/ethnicity, gender, marital status, discipline, etc. For my part, I am looking forward to seeing which universities in our Spring ’21 cohort “hold the line,” or drop the least, on faculty satisfaction with support for childcare. 

My institution does what it can to make personal/family obligations (e.g., childcare or eldercare) and an academic career compatible.

A half a lifetime ago in June, an AAU member’s Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs asked the faculty success community we share for its ideas on childcare. She mentioned that the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) included emergency paid sick leave (up to 2 weeks) and expanded family medical leave (up to 10 additional weeks) to faculty and other employees for whom childcare is unavailable and who cannot work remotely. So, if a president, provost or dean mandated face-to-face teaching, then parents could claim 12 weeks of leave, two of them paid, and not teach at all. (Of course, the FFCRA doesn’t help faculty parents who are trying to teach remotely and care for their children at the same time.) The vice provost’s question was, “How are you gathering information about possible leave-taking for your faculty without asking impermissible questions about dependents, etc.” I followed up with her last week; she didn’t receive a single response. 

There is some, but not much chatter about childcare over on the HERC message board. There, I learned that the University of Chicago tried free Zoomcare over the summer. That’s not likely a long-term solution, but I wonder if what they learned from this experiment that could be translated into a plan for the future. Were I an administrator looking for ideas, I would contact Liv Leader, U. Chicago’s Director of Dual Careers and Faculty Relocation, to see if they have anything more strategic or inventive up their sleeves. I would also reach out to CUPA-HR for news of any ideas from that community


Interdisciplinary Problems, Siloed Solutions… and Inequitable Outcomes 

One VP for student affairs, who is chairing his university’s COVID-19 task force, told me in confidence that he gives his institution’s hybrid model two weeks to last before a switch to remote learning becomes necessary. Whether teaching in person (initially) or remotely (ultimately), faculty will need childcare because they are expected to be performing all of their work duties somehow while daycare centers and schools are closed. If there are any solutions that both faculty and administrators believe could work, I haven’t seen them.  

These “grand challenges” require cross-silo imagination and leadership. Unfortunately, as your FJSS reports will tell you, interdisciplinary capacity is still more talk than walk at our colleges and universities. What’s worse, childcare during a pandemic demands a solution beyond our campus walls, one that spans K12, government, and private sectors.  

Without an answer to this problem, the downstream consequences for equity are too many and too tangled for me to appreciate fully right now, but one thing is clear: unless your institution conducts an honest and comprehensive re-thinking of academic rewards, this is going to be bad. As one person warned on Twitter, “People (who are not burdened with childcare, not worried about evictions, their/families' health, etc) are going to be elevated for 'thriving' in the pandemic, effectively penalizing those who did have to face it head on…” Academic parents are gamely suggesting individual and therefore insufficient antidotes like including on their CVs “all the opportunities you've declined because you are juggling your job and childcare, adding an asterisk to indicate you declined due to the pandemic.”  

Short of a major, emergency investment from our state or federal governments (i.e., modern-day G.I. Bill kinds of money), campuses are probably on their own.  


Local strategies? 

Your colleagues are all hoping a local solution is possible, but what might that look like? Here is an idea I’ve stitched together from everything above, from news reports (like this one in the Boston Globe), and not to mention, from my own recent experiences as a parent of school-aged children.  

As co-curricular opportunities for face-to-face engagement, including all college sports, have been or will be canceled, and part-time employment (e.g., to pay tuition and living expenses) is scarce, college students are casting about for work, for purpose, for connection. One college senior I know who shares a house with the soccer team says they’re all at a loss for what to do with themselves this semester—except party (read: spread the virus). 

I told her that if faculty in her college town are like me, they’re desperate to find someone to serve as a “remote learning guide” to their school-aged kids (and babysitters to their Very Little Ones). Parents will be fighting over college students willing to spend four or even just two hours each day with their children helping to translate the school curriculum—which in the Spring amounted to impenetrable Google Docs riddled with links to other Google Docs—into a daily, manageable, clear routine. These guides (as a recovering Classicist, I am reminded of paedagogi) can motivate children to learn and get them outside from time to time for physical activity. For older children, these students could become mentors. 

If there is a “master stroke” to this plan, it is that it greatly increases the chances that the faculty member parents will form a meaningful relationship with their student “guide” as a person—which if you believe the often-cited research from Gallup, is perhaps the most powerful factor of the college experience predicting future connections to the alma mater, engagement with work, and general well-being.  

Still, there are plenty of details to sort out, and the devil might reveal himself there. First, who gets paid and from where? If colleges could help form these groups into local 501(c)3’s, could they even fund these organizations to subsidize the cost, then let parents use their dependent care FSAs for the rest? Also, how will students and their families feel about “paying tuition to babysit for faculty”? Could colleges offer credits for the work somehow, since credits are “free” to them?  

You probably have more questions, but perhaps this proposal has prompted some better ideas, too. Could a university, a school/college, even a department get the ball rolling by reaching out to athletic teams and other co-curricular organizations (for a start) to address their childcare crisis? We are all listening (with elephant ears). 


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