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April 3, 2008


For a little over a year a subcommittee of the University Senate’s gender equity committee has been meeting to assess the child care situation at the University. As chair of this subcommittee, I have worked with an extremely talented and committed group of faculty from different departments and schools within the University.

Thanks to the commitment of these faculty members, we have conducted a comparative study of child care at Pitt and comparable institutions. Unfortunately, we have found that the efforts to improve the availability and affordability of child care opportunities for Pitt faculty, students and staff still don’t quite match up to the ones undertaken by our peers. (See March 6 University Times.)

What we discovered, during a very intense year of research and analysis, is that the dearth and high cost of child care both on university campuses and in the surrounding communities is a national problem, but that some universities have been quick in responding to what might be considered, if not an emergency, certainly an extremely serious problem.

Pitt, to its credit, established on-campus child care in 1984 and in the 1990s moved the University Child Development Center into its own exemplary facility on Clyde Street, where it continues to operate and is greatly appreciated by the few parents who benefit from its services.

It is not the fault of UCDC, or of the UCDC staff, that the waiting list for infants and toddlers is absolutely prohibitive, stretching as long as three years, or that UCDC’s kindergarten program may be discontinued in order to make space for more infant care.

We all know that the last few decades have witnessed a cultural shift of unprecedented proportions, where more women are entering the professional world, while more men are taking increasing responsibility for child-rearing duties. This means that a role traditionally filled by the female members of the family unit now is becoming the responsibility of a larger familial and social body. If I repeat the obvious, it is because I am not sure that academic administrators fully grasp the impact that this cultural shift implies for the University.

Women are protected by affirmative action regulations in their attempt to fully become part of academia, and they are in fact getting more and more PhD degrees even in the natural sciences, engineering and in other disciplines where they still lag behind their male counterparts.

But the University’s attempts to keep a gender balance when hiring new faculty are not sufficient to attract and retain women: The most crucial years in academic careers — late 20s, the 30s and early 40s — also are the prime time for childbearing and subsequent responsibilities. It is therefore highly unreasonable to expect that simply hiring a junior professor with parenting responsibilities will be sufficient to implement the mandate of affirmative action. To retain these women, the University needs to be fully aware of and provide support for the multiple human and social duties these women must fulfill.

In the case of men, it is a social reality that many young fathers today have a much greater responsibility for hands-on child care. So without adequate on-campus child care, our male professors and staff members also may find themselves under great stress. To a certain extent, their plight might be less understood than that of female faculty and staff because parenting duties often still are viewed mainly as a woman’s job.

Why do I consider this issue an extremely urgent one, one that requires immediate action from our top administrators? Because a research university thrives on attracting and retaining the very best talent available, independent of the age or the sex of those who can provide such talent. The University of Pittsburgh has been successful in climbing up the national rankings for state institutions, to the general satisfaction of our academic community at large. Prompt consideration and implementation of the subcommittee’s recommendations (including appointment of a chancellor’s office official to address child care issues, as well as increasing availability and affordability of child care options on campus) would be a vital step in making sure that these gains will be consistent in the years to come.

Giuseppina Mecchia is an associate professor in the Department of French and Italian Languages and Literatures and director of the graduate program for cultural studies.

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