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Three principles of family friendliness

Richard Klee | Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Correction: In the original column published April 27, the author was incorrectly identified as a Notre Dame staff member. Richard Klee is a graduate student. The Observer regrets this error.

In the midst of recent discussion on the Family Friendly Petition currently hosted on these sites:

uhttps://sites.google.com/a/nd.edu/familyfriendlypetition/ (for students)
uhttps://sites .google.com/a/nd.edu/notre-dame-family-petition/ (for non-students),

I would like to clarify a few of the principles behind the petition’s composition and their relevance for Notre Dame.

Health care is a human right
 Many Notre Dame student spouses and international students’ children are uninsured. In a 2004 statement, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops noted that “people who lack health insurance are far less likely to receive basic health care services … They may delay seeking needed medical care … or have trouble paying medical bills while meeting other essential needs such as food, housing and utilities. The uninsured receive less preventive care, are diagnosed at more advanced disease stages, and once diagnosed, tend to receive less care … The Institute of Medicine estimates that 18,000 Americans die unnecessarily each year due to the lack of health insurance coverage.”

This letter describes the dangers that face the uninsured as well as the reasons why Catholics promote adequate health care access as a human right. Lack of health care threatens every stage of human life from the womb to adulthood. Such risks are faced now by many uninsured student spouses and international student children.  This petition calls on Notre Dame to authenticate its Catholic identity and improve the poor health care access of student families. In doing so it can join the Catholic institutions without hospitals that provide affordable coverage to student spouses, from The Catholic University of America and Dayton to Ave Maria and the University of Dallas, as well as private schools like Princeton and Texas Christian. The petition also recommends dependent insurance subsidies for international families whose children do not qualify for state-provided health care. Rather than the imposing $70 million cost of an endowed fund that would provide such support in perpetuity, this petition asks for a 3.5-year commitment from Notre Dame to subsidize coverage to a level affordable to student families until health care reform provisions begin on Jan. 1, 2014.

Female Students with children merit targeted support
Several large scale studies demonstrate the substantially lower advanced degree completion rates of female graduate students with children as compared to males with children and single men and women.  This condition worsens as graduate programs lengthen and expenses for prerequisite bachelor and master’s degrees increase. Many female students are unable to justify the expense and duration of advanced study in view of family concerns while others opt to delay or even forgo children in order to persevere through a six- to 10-year-long graduate track. In order to promote gender equity in outcomes, many peer institutions such as Duke, University of Southern California, Cornell, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, Princeton, Brown and others provide student maternity leave with additional funding, longer duration, and automatic milestone extensions, in contrast to Notre Dame. Some of these schools also provide part-time enrollment options and paternity leave, in part so women are not mandated the sole or primary caregivers.

A Catholic university has a wealth of reasons to support such efforts in even greater degree so as to encourage the participation of students with families in advanced study. In Catholic theology, institutions should act from conviction that the family is the foundation of society. This is not only because of the life-giving power of procreation. Families are donors via the endowment of education, humanity and love provided to their members, upon which society depends and universities in particular draw. Proper university support of student family life acknowledges that the relationship between family life and academic work is honest only when the requirements of each are respected. It further promotes the cultural change that must occur in academia to ensure that the welcome of a child is not considered a threat to career prospects for students or junior faculty.

Financial support should match competitors and need
Many peer institutions offer dedicated funds for student families. Such supports vary in form, with examples such as the low-income family grants of up to $8,000 after childbirth at Berkeley, to emergency family expense grants and pre-tax health and child care accounts at Michigan, to direct subsidies for child care from infancy at many private and public universities. Such supports provide a more level field for low-income student families, a group that particularly includes minority and international students. At Notre Dame, University-supported child care is not provided until age 2 and requires joining a long waiting list. Stipends are typically raised in response only to competition with peer university stipend offers and are not adjusted in view of family need. There are, however, a few departments at Notre Dame who make generous accommodations for students following childbirth that include financial considerations. This petition recommends that Notre Dame offer child care subsidies directly to student families from infancy and provide departments and schools with discretionary funds to meet financial needs as low-income student families begin or grow. Addressing these concrete financial needs has warrant not only by a comparative look at peer university practices but also and especially by Catholic Social Doctrine and its insistence that the basic requirements of the family be provided for economic arrangements.

This petition is addressed to the fellows, trustees and officers of the University, who must ultimately consider the ethical questions raised by the current situation of graduate families as well as the better practices of peer universities regarding families. They will decide whether to improve conditions at Notre Dame. In addition, due to the leadership of Deans Sterling and Turpin and that of the members of the following commissions, there are recommendations from the Graduate School and the University Committee on Women Faculty and Students due soon on some of the conditions described above. We hope the stewards of the University will consider the benchmarks of other schools and the unique contribution that a Catholic university seeking to educate the heart and the mind can make. We further hope individual departments and students will provoke conversations regarding the place of families within their programs in order to create better conditions for students and faculty considering or already involved with family life.

Richard Klee is a Notre Dame graduate student and one of the authors of the family-friendly petition. He can be reached at rklee2@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.