The Graduate School expands parental leave policy following years-long push from students

Julia Jacobs, Editor in Chief

More graduate students will have access to parental leave for a longer period of time, following policy changes from The Graduate School effective this fall.

Before Sept. 1, only women who gave birth to children qualified for six weeks of leave if they served as student assistants, fellows and/or received a tuition scholarship at the time of childbirth. Now, the policy provides 12 weeks of time off to students “of all gender identities and gender expressions” who have new parental responsibilities, including those who adopt children.

“If you have a C-section, you’re not even allowed to drive for six weeks, so having a six-week family leave policy doesn’t get you very far,” said Robin Hoecker (Communication ‘16), who drafted the parental accommodation policy in 2015 as a graduate student at Northwestern.

Early last year, Northwestern began offering paid parental leave to staff members who recently adopted children or whose partners have recently given birth.

Hoecker, who had her daughter as a graduate student two years ago and is co-founder of NU’s Student Parent Alliance, said one of the group’s priorities was a parental accommodation policy that does not take University funding away from students during their leave.

“What happens when you have a kid is that you come back after your maternity leave and you have more work to do and less research funding to do your work,” Hoecker said. “It really puts you at a disadvantage.”

Under the previous policy, graduate student parents who wanted their funding to continue during their six-week leave would end up short at the end of their time in graduate school, said Sarah McGill, senior associate dean at TGS. The new policy, which TGS approved at the end of Spring Quarter, provides paid leave by request of student parents who take time off and are funded by the University. McGill said the new policy will offer a “true funded leave” for graduate students who receive a stipend.

Both funded and unfunded graduate student parents will also have the opportunity to extend their program deadlines, such as for qualifying exams, by one year.

Hoecker added that the new policy sets a positive example for other universities.

The changes are a result of a task force formed last fall to study the needs of graduate students with children and whether the University’s resources were sufficient. Creation of the task force was a result of meetings between members of the Student Parent Alliance and top administrators. But the task force was announced without any members from SPA included, and group members expressed frustration at their lack of representation.

McGill, who led the task force, said there were multiple points of communication with groups such as SPA during the process, including open forums and a preview of the task force’s findings with the Graduate Leadership and Advocacy Council as well as members of SPA.

Other changes that have resulted from the task force include additional lactation rooms available to graduate students, as well as Wildcard access to each of those rooms, said Lori Anne Henderson, director of work and life resources in the human resources department. The Wildcard system should alleviate challenges of accessing the lactation rooms and help the University acquire information about the demand for the rooms on campus, Henderson said.

“There was a very clear understanding on the part of everyone on the task force, as well as on the Northwestern administration, that we were pretty far behind in terms of the numbers, sheers numbers, of lactation spaces on our campus,” Henderson said.

Henderson said another addition is a child care grant, which graduate students can begin submitting applications for on Oct. 1, as well as a new University position of family resource liaison, who will work specifically with graduate student parents.

Matilda Stubbs, a member of SPA and an eighth-year anthropology graduate student at NU, said when she was pregnant with her child, she was told one informational resource for graduate students was the Office of Human Resources website. Stubbs said she found that to be confusing considering the University does not consider graduate students to be employees.

Stubbs said she got no time off when she had her son four years ago, attributing it to not being considered an employee and, thus, not being covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act.

However, in August, the National Labor Relations Board established that graduate student teaching and research assistants at private universities qualify as employees and have collective bargaining rights.

Hoecker said she was frustrated with the University’s choice to leave members of SPA off the task force and the delay in introducing the policy after TGS approved it in May. (The school published an announcement of the policy change Monday on its website.) Hoecker said the experience of being “excluded” has left her convinced that graduate students must unionize to gain more influence in decision-making that affects them.

However, the University has expressed opposition to graduate student unionization. University spokesman Al Cubbage said in a news release after the NLRB’s decision in August that NU believes unionization and collective bargaining are not the “appropriate methods” for addressing concerns voiced by graduate student assistants.

In an email to graduate students on Sept. 1, Dwight McBride, associate provost and TGS dean, wrote, “Northwestern has always regarded its Ph.D. students as students, first and foremost, and the classification of these students as employees would significantly change the relationship between doctoral students, their faculty mentors, and the University.”

Asked whether graduate students’ relationships with the human resources department will change if they are considered employees, Henderson said, “It’s hard to know how this is going to unfold.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @juliarebeccaj