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MIT Sets New Policy For Maternity Leave

By Kathy Dobson

STAFF REPORTER

A new institute-wide childbirth accommodation policy for female graduate students has been developed and will formally become effective in July, Dean of Graduate Students Isaac M. Colbert said.

In an announcement sent out last week, Provost Robert A. Brown and Chancellor Philip L. Clay cited the need for changes in the current institute-wide policy for childbirth, which encourages women students to petition for a medical leave of absence.

A medical leave would retroactively cancel the term, end stipend payment and access to on-campus housing, and may threaten access to MIT health care services. This “penalizes the student and cuts off her access to critical resources just when she needs it most,” wrote Brown and Clay.

The new policy allows graduate women students the option of taking “up to eight weeks of Childbirth Accommodation,” beginning on a date specified on a petition filled out before childbirth or on the actual date of childbirth. The petition must be approved by the Graduate Students Office and is not granted by the Institute or faculty, said Colbert.

If the student is supported by a teaching assistant or research assistant appointment, she will receive a stipend paid from the childbirth accommodation insurance pool during her accommodation period. Half of the money in the insurance pool is set aside by the Office of the Provost, while the rest is donated by the schools in proportion to the size of their graduate population, said Michael R. Folkert G, vice president of the Graduate Student Council.

The new policy states that, with approval of the childbirth accommodation petition, students retain access to on-campus medical facilities, and can retain on-campus residence “as appropriate for the specific hall” for the accommodation period.

Although the new policy allows students to “normally...stop the academic and research clocks with regards to assignments due, reports anticipated, or other class and research related requirements,” students maintain their full-time status, and the visa status of international students is not affected by the childbirth accommodation period.

The policy states that it will not apply to adoptions “men in support of their wives or partners during childbirth.”

Students see problems with policy

The current policy is part of a two year effort initiated by the Academic Research and Careers Committee, a committee made up of members of the GSC, said R. Erich Caulfield, president of the GSC. Caulfield said the ARCC submitted a draft of the policy to administrators last year.

Last year’s ARCC chair, Christiane Collins G, wrote the initial version of the Childbirth Accommodation Policy and said that the policy does not do an adequate job of addressing the needs of women students who choose to give birth while in graduate school. Collins said she was concerned that the new policy does not waive tuition for self-supported students during the time of the accommodation period, even though the academic clock stops. According to the Childbirth Accommodation Policy, tuition for eight weeks costs about $6,533.

“We initially agreed self-supported students would not have to pay tuition,” Collins said.

Krishnan Sriram G, 2001-2002 chair of the ARCC, who has been working with Collins on the policy, shared that reservation.

“My concern is that students would have to pay tuition during the time of the leave according to the policy,” Sriram said. “If tuition is waived during that period, it would make life much easier for them.”

Colbert said the policy was originally proposed to waive tuition, but “it just wasn’t financially feasible” given the current financial state of the Institute. He said it is “certainly possible to revisit the policy.”

Collins said she had other concerns about the policy, including the non-guarantee of on-campus housing after the accommodation period, post-accommodation period expectations and support, and the stipend amount, which could be more or less than what the student was receiving before the accommodation period. “For the ninety percent of students who had nice professors” and let them take time off without having to take a medical leave, “this is a huge step backwards,” she said.

Folkert said that he would expect about eight to nine people a year to take advantage of the new policy.

Other universities develop policies

MIT is one of the first universities to have an institute-wide childbirth accommodation policy for graduate women students, said Colbert. “As far as I know, no other peer institute has anything like this,” Colbert said.

According to the announcement from Brown and Clay, “Harvard has begun to develop a childbirth leave policy for women students” and Stanford’s electrical engineering department currently has a policy that grants women students several weeks of leave for childbirth.

Colbert said that he views the new policy as a signal from the Institute that it shares “a commitment to support” women graduate students.

“It is great that the policy is there,” said Collins, “but it still has a long way to go.”