Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Day Care in Holyoke Center?

There has been a little chattering among a few of my faculty colleagues about child care -- how limited and how expensive the options are. Of course this is an issue that affects staff as well as faculty, but to begin with I want to think about it just from the perspective of the faculty.

The Harvard-affiliated day care centers (not actually run by Harvard -- each is on Harvard property, but is corporately independent, with its own board of directors) offer convenience if you work at Harvard but (I am told) no price advantage over other child care centers. You can save some money by using one of the two Harvard-affiliated co-op centers -- but then, of course, you have to co-operate, by donating your time taking care of other people's children, which may be neither convenient nor appealing.

Both my daughters are alumnae of what were then called the Radcliffe Child Care Centers. Given the total absence of other options in the 1980s, we were glad to be able to use these centers (my wife and I were both working and we did not go the co-op route). I am less happy to discover the problem has not gone away, and that Harvard has, perhaps, not kept up with advances. The Stata Center at MIT has a day care center, very visible on the ground floor (where there are also a gym and a cafe). I gather it is well planned and well run.

How much should Harvard invest in a benefit that is of use to only part of its employee base? One could argue that people who have chosen not to be parents, or for whom parenthood is impossible, have their own challenging personal needs, which compromise their work lives. Is parenthood special in some way that makes it sensible for Harvard, exceptionally, to mitigate its financial burdens?

I don't know the answer to that question. I have some moral qualms about the answer, frankly; in principle I would prefer that the University just pay faculty more and let them decide how to spend the money.

But day care could easily become a competitive disadvantage for Harvard -- in the way the lack of a "tenure track" used to be, before two-career couples became the norm and Harvard suddenly realized it was losing its top senior faculty candidates because their spouses were unwilling to give up their law partnerships, etc., at mid-career in another city. And it could also be argued that it would pay the university in productivity to deprive faculty of their standard, legitimate excuse for not teaching classes or showing up for meetings that begin before 9:30am or end after 5:00pm.

If there are reasons to re-think any of this, this is the moment to do it. President Faust told the Crimson that she hopes that a student center may come into being in Holyoke Center. That is the perfect location for a university-run day care center, like the one in the Stata Center.

How about it? Good idea, given Harvard's financial condition, and what it might cost and what other uses that imagined money could be put? How would the cost-benefit analysis be done, when the benefits (recruitment and retention of faculty, productivity of faculty, improved work climate for faculty) are so hard to quantify?

And then there are the questions about staff. If the center is Harvard-run, should faculty get priority? On the one hand there are certainly other benefits faculty get that staff do not. And there is greater competition for faculty than for staff. But then the moral issues re-emerge. The cost of child care is an even greater stress on less well-paid Harvard workers; could Harvard really create a center from which they were excluded? I doubt that it could or should. And then what about grad students? But what if limiting was the only way to get its cost within a feasible range? Would it be better for the university not to have a center at all than to have one that is limited?

21 comments:

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  3. Day care center expenses are big enough to force you to give your financial planning a second thought. Parents are having a really tough time in deciding which day care they should opt for their kids.

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    1. These are tough decisions indeed. I am wholly sympathetic -- I went through it and I am watching my daughter go through it. But having children involves lots of expenses and requires lots of financial planning. It affects what jobs the parents do and do not choose, where they choose to live, what vacations they take, and a thousand other things. The question is, to what extent is it the responsibility of the university to help out with this particular piece of the cradle-through-grad-school planning that parents (or indeed prospective parents) need to think about?

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    2. I totally agree. It is such a concerning factors for parents. They have to ensure that their jobs can give enough earnings to manage their children's educational needs.

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  4. When I was a graduate student at Harvard and having my first child I looked at the Harvard day care centers. The cost of putting my daughter there for a month was equivalent to my graduate student stipend for a month. On deeper research I found that inability to pay for child care was one of the primary reasons that women drop out of Ph.D. programs in science. That's a kind of collateral damage for the sciences that a university like Harvard should not let happen.

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  5. 1) the competitive disadv argument seems very compelling.
    Somehow (and the Freakonomics guys may have studied this)
    giving free (say) daycare or tuition-remission seems
    more attractive then the equivalent in salary. Of course
    one reason is convience.

    2) The argument that its a benefit for parents but not
    for non-parents doesn't really bother me (I am not a parent).
    Its a social good and the benefits, direct and indirect,
    are good for all.

    3) I would open it to staff and grad students. But I agree
    this could get expensive. Is it known what other schools
    (and other organizations) do?

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  6. The cost/benefit analysis should be weighed against other perks of Harvard, such as need-blind admissions. Why does Harvard (and many other orgs) subsidize commuting costs, give better parking spaces for carpools, help with real estate rentals and refinancing, and all the rest? Hopefully it's because the value (both tangible and intangible) outweighs the cost, and not just because of entrenched thinking or "keeping up with the Jones' ". I'm certain there are plenty of examples at other institutes that can give us a starting point, if not a full long-term answer to the question of tradeoffs in these vectors.

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  7. Thanks for all the comments above. Becca, it's not only a reason women drop out of grad school -- it's a reason women delay chlid-bearing until they finish grad school. Bill and Marc, it's a mixed bag. The reason Harvard helps with real estate is, I'm pretty sure, entirely competitive and self-interested: it couldn't get them to leave wherever they are and move to the Boston-area housing market without doing so. I doubt it has anything to do with shortening their commute times so they spend more time at the office or arrive at work less stressed, for example. Carpooling is a bit different, because the City is putting pressure on the university to reduce the number of cars driving to Harvard -- it's still not a pure values proposition.

    So the questions remain: It's easier to make the argument on competitive grounds, even the argument that we should be AHEAD of the competition rather than just level with it, but certainly not behind. I also find the investment easier to justify on other forms of institutional self-interest (stretching out the faculty work day, for example), even where that can't easily be quantified. On general social good arguments, the argument for spending limited resources in one socially progressive way rather than another becomes less clear.

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  8. Good point Harry!!! Two thumbs up!!! I couldn’t agree more with those wise words…
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