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Family life at Notre Dame

Richard Klee | Wednesday, January 20, 2010

This past summer my 1-year old son and I traveled to Le Mans, France, to visit the mother church of the Holy Cross family and the resting place of Blessed Fr. Basil Moreau. Above the marble tomb of Fr. Moreau — around which my son toddled happily for half an hour — is fixed a stone relief of the Holy Family at work: Mary threads, Joseph works wood and Jesus helps. This is an artful meditation on the heart of the Holy Cross charism. Its saintly founder envisioned his sisters, brothers and priests to be like the Holy Family, working together in a familial love for God, each other and those they serve.

At Notre Dame today, there exists a vibrant culture around family life that is striking and attractive. Undergraduate students fall in love and marry; faculty and staff enjoy a strong emphasis on raising family in the University community, and as a graduate student the difference between here and other universities regarding the welcoming of a child is great. Much of this culture is undoubtedly a gift from the Holy Cross religious community.

While the culture of family life at Notre Dame is in some dimensions exemplary, the University’s supports for graduate student families in other ways are failing. Notre Dame’s stipends are much lower than those of its peer institutions, as noted by an independent review of the Graduate School by the Council of Graduate Schools in 2008. Notre Dame also does not regularly increase stipends to meet inflation or even the level offered to incoming classes, with the result that newly admitted students have larger stipends than their longer-term peers, who typically support larger families. Female graduate students must withdraw from the University if they wish to remain more than six weeks with their child after childbirth; in some cases they may be required to make up work missed during this period, which is time that counts against their funded years at the Graduate School. Only very few graduate students can afford to insure theirspouses on the University’s health plan. Some spouses go uninsured for years, and incur large medical and financial risks while at Notre Dame. Wives fortunate to gain state insurance after a period of six uninsured months lose comprehensive insurance upon pregnancy. In its poor quality of construction Notre Dame’s married student and family housing is inferior to other University residences. Though Notre Dame provides an admirable service to all in the community with its Early Childhood Development Centers, these are available to a limited number of children and after age two or later. Finally, in our current economic crisis, an increasing number of graduate student families are turning to food stamps, WIC and other government-provided aids in order to barely meet domestic needs in the present, while anticipating a severely constricted job market and substantial student loan burdens in the future.

Much of this stands in contrast to leading public and private universities that took a critical look at their own family supports. Noting particularly the lagging recruitment and promotion of women through the academic ranks, universities like the University of California system, Princeton, Ohio State, Yale, Cornell, Duke, Stanford and others have formulated innovative policies to support graduate student families specifically and especially encourage women to pursue academic careers. These include full semesters or several months off their clock with funding following childbirth for male and female students, limited part-time student options with at least partial funding, targeted grants at childbirth and afterwards for family expenses and childcare, children’s centers for a wide range of ages, dedicated nursing or family rooms in academic buildings and comprehensive plans to improve residence and health conditions for graduate families. Some of these universities have already noted significant reductions in doctoral student attrition and a substantial increase in satisfaction among graduate families and women particularly.

While it would be well to consider the leaders of its peer group in this regard, Notre Dame has a rich tradition of its own to consider. The image of the Holy Family that adorns Blessed Fr. Moreau’s tomb is not only his vision for the Holy Cross religious but a profound reflection on the Gospel. The Mother of God and her just spouse Joseph welcomed Jesus into the world with the example of their work, which provided for his basic needs in a manner that accorded with his own holy life. For graduate student families at Notre Dame, the work of study, teaching and research unfortunately means great risk to basic dimensions of the family: health, financial integrity, and the ability to welcome children. By reflecting on the tradition of the Congregation of the Holy Cross regarding respect for life and support for the family as the foundation of society, Notre Dame could provide its graduate students and the academy with a clearer perspective: the well-being of families and women in particular are essential for the health and future of every university.

Richard Klee
doctoral student
Malloy Hall
Jan. 19