Dear President Levin,
We are Ph.D. candidates in the Religious Studies department at Yale. We call on you to guarantee the following to all graduate students and other teachers, researchers and staff of Yale University immediately: 1) affordable, flexible on-site day care; 2) subsidized dependent health care; and 3) a fair parental leave policy.
Our department has more graduate parents and more children per capita than any other at the University. This may be due in part to the fact that the demands of our field require virtually all of us to acquire masters’ degrees (and often significant debt) in order to gain access to Ph.D. programs. Many of us have also gained critical prior experience working in religious and other service institutions prior to our arrival at Yale, and consequently do not begin at Yale until at least our late 20’s to 30’s — precisely the span in which most of the population begins families. Nevertheless, the present options for having a family in graduate school are sobering. Family health care through the Yale Health Plan costs roughly $3,000 per year, one-sixth of the average graduate school income. Child care options often involve long waiting lists, thousands of dollars in expenses, and all-or-nothing contracts that preclude part-time arrangements and cost saving. And without a formal parental leave policy, many graduate parents walk a tenuous line between attending to the needs of their children and keeping to the established timeline for academic promotion.
The problems we see vividly in our department are not unique to us. Most disciplines are now emphasizing pre-doctoral degrees, and all academics are facing a greater likelihood of low-benefit “transitional” positions after we receive our Ph.D.s. Given the realities of today’s graduate population, we believe that having children should by no means be considered indulgent, but rather a predictable part of a graduate student’s career. By the same token, the administration should view health benefits for family members just as it does for individuals: as a basic need and expectation. Finally, we believe that the absence of parental leave, affordable child care and medical coverage for dependents especially discriminates against women and international scholars, two integral constituencies within the graduate school.
The recent remarks of Harvard’s president have sparked debate about equality of opportunity for women in today’s universities, yet behind his widely reported conjecture about innate differences, another of Summers’ remarks rings all too true. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, he suggested that women scientists with children might be reluctant to work the long hours required for institutional success. Summers is right to describe a tension here — but dead wrong to place the emphasis on the work ethic or “priorities” of individual women. Too often such arguments serve only to obscure the structural obstacles to a fair playing field, at Yale as well as other places of work. Mary Ann Mason, Dean of the Graduate School at UC Berkeley, has produced copious data to underscore the fundamental structural conflict between women in academia having children and gaining academic promotion. She has concluded that family friendly policies — inclusive health coverage, affordable and flexible child care, and uniform parental leave policies — are critical for universities that wish to attract and retain female academics. It is time Yale recognizes that today’s prejudicial arrangements for advancement and benefits — whether for graduate students or faculty — are no more fixed or inevitable than was single-sex education a generation ago.
International scholars are also in a precarious position. Many come to Yale with families, and according to law, spouses often cannot be employed. Children not born in this country are ineligible for HUSKY, the already cash-strapped state Medicaid program. When the money isn’t there, however, HUSKY is the only option available for graduate student families, and many are forced to turn to it. In our opinion, the administration should be ashamed to rely at all on state poverty programs as a safety net for the Yale community — but especially when international scholars are denied equal access to these benefits.
So what is to be done? Just over a year ago, more than 100 women, several from Religious Studies, committed civil disobedience to protest the structural inequalities facing women at universities. The Yale Daily News explicitly endorsed their demand for affordable child care as one important remedy (2/6/04). But this change must come as part of a wholesale rethinking, from the top down, of the work that is necessary to transform Yale into an equitable and accessible institution.
This letter was also signed by 34 other Ph.D. candidates in the Religious Studies department.