What Do We Know about Campus Policies on Children in the Workplace?

An underexamined aspect of "family-friendly" policies.
By Heather K. Olson Beal, Lauren E. Brewer, Chrissy Cross, and Shelby J. Gull

parent holding hands walking with child

In August 2018, two of us were invited to a meeting with senior administrators at our university to discuss our persistent efforts to advocate for the installation of diaper-changing tables in the men’s and women’s restrooms and the creation of lactation spaces across campus. At the time, there were only a handful of diaper-changing tables and one or two dedicated lactation spaces across the entire campus of approximately twelve thousand students. As mothers ourselves, we knew how difficult it could be to juggle school, work, and family responsibilities. We knew that students, staff, faculty, and visitors sometimes needed to change a diaper or feed a fussy baby while on campus. We were committed to making our campus more family-friendly and were excited for an opportunity to make our case to people in authority.

When the meeting began, we explained what we were advocating for and why. We cited numerous reasons why a parent might need or even want on occasion to bring a child to campus. The administrators listened and asked questions; the conversation quickly turned to discussing how to make our idea happen. A student-led interior design team would canvass the campus to determine where to install changing tables and lactation rooms, taking into account budgetary considerations and the Americans with Disabilities Act. We also discussed building a website to house all the benefits and programs that make our campus “family-friendly”—parking spaces for expectant mothers, planetarium shows for families, summer camps, tuition benefits for dependents, and so forth. We were thrilled to be part of tangible actions to make our campus more inviting and accessible to more campus community members.

As the meeting came to a close, one of the administrators wondered aloud how these changes and the proposed website would look once the new policy came out. Confused, we asked, “What new policy?” The administrators explained that a new policy had been proposed that would limit the presence of employees’ children on campus. We were taken aback. How could a new policy have been created—or even proposed—without feedback from the campus community? We wondered about the occasional student who has to bring a child to class when child-care plans fall through; they assured us that the proposed policy applied only to employees, not students. Furthermore, we worried that the proposed policy was antithetical to what we had been discussing in that very meeting: creating a more family-friendly campus, a goal that had previously arisen in countless strategic planning committee meetings. We all knew that higher education was becoming increasingly diverse in terms of staff, faculty, and students and that we needed to adapt in order to embrace changing demographics. We knew that the number of students with dependent children was growing. We also knew, from experience, that sometimes staff and faculty members needed to bring a child with them to campus. We ended the meeting by asking administrators to share information about the proposed policy with the campus community, which they did.

After this meeting, we began searching the websites of other institutions of higher education and were surprised to find similar policies elsewhere. Our faculty senate hosted a town hall to discuss the proposed policy. At the forum, twenty individuals from a group that included staff, faculty, alumni, and students spoke against the policy; no one spoke in favor of it. Faculty and staff shared stories of how much they enjoyed occasionally bringing their child to their office or to class and how it humanized them to their students, who could see them with their children. People mentioned how much they enjoyed watching their colleagues’ children grow up as they visited the office over the years. One of us spoke of how much her kids had loved coming to their mom’s office and getting quarters out of her desk drawer to buy a treat from the vending machine. Another faculty member described how her kids gained confidence by walking independently from after-school piano lessons taught by music faculty members elsewhere on campus to her building. One of our young daughters spoke up about how she liked being able to walk from her nearby school to her mom’s office to do homework in the afternoons. Our kids were so comfortable on a college campus; it was a perk of university life. Many faculty members said that when they originally interviewed for their positions, everyone assured them that the campus was very family-friendly; for some, the family-friendliness was a primary motivation to accept a position here. Our campus is located in a small town in rural east Texas. Many faculty members who take positions here move far away from family and friends, so assurances that the institutional culture was family-friendly were a big draw.

After the forum, the faculty senate disseminated a survey to get more feedback on the policy. Seven hundred and twenty-nine faculty members, staff members, and students completed the survey. Approximately 73 percent opposed the policy and 27 percent supported it. We now had data to back us up; we were hopeful that the numbers would effectively communicate the campus community’s perceptions of the proposed policy to administration.

The proposed policy then went through additional reviews and revisions, including feedback from the faculty senate, during the spring 2019 semester. A Texas Tribune reporter published an article about the proposed policy and local TV media reported on it. The Tribune piece was shared widely among the higher education community on social media. When the policy, largely unrevised, was ultimately approved in July 2019, we, along with many others across campus, were disappointed and concerned. We had no information about how the policy would be implemented. Those of us with children wondered what kind of permission we would need to bring them to campus. Being able to bring our children with us to campus enabled us to be more accessible to students. It also made our work and personal lives more manageable. We did not understand how this new policy fit with our ostensibly family-centered institutional culture and were unsure how to continue advocating for expanded family-friendly initiatives.

Investigating Extant Research

So, we did what academics are trained to do: we looked for empirical literature on the experiences of parents—students, staff, and faculty—in higher education. We found studies that documented the unique challenges faced by academic parents, and academic mothers in particular, as a result of systemic bias against family formation and a lack of formal or informal institutional support. We found studies that identify specific policies that support employees who are parents, such as pausing the tenure clock, flexible work-scheduling, part-time work options, modification in job duties, and parental leave or childcare support. And we found studies that suggest that work-life balance is a key factor in job satisfaction and retention and that a corresponding lack of institutional support for a healthy work-life balance can lead to a decline in employees’ productivity, job satisfaction, and physical, emotional, and mental health. These research findings paralleled our own lived experiences as academic mothers.

We did not find any research on the existence of policies on children in the workplace that restrict or limit the presence of the children of faculty and staff members (but not necessarily of students) or their impact on employees who are parents and caregivers. Because of related research some of us had done, we were particularly interested in how these policies affect academic mothers. Then, in early 2020, as we continued to wrestle with this issue, Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociology professor at Temple University, tweeted a critique of universities for restricting children from campus and started the hashtag “#kidsoncampus.” The tweet went viral, with thousands of comments from faculty, staff, and students who were angry with their institutions for devaluing their identities as parents and worried about the impact of such policies on the growing population of parent students. We were not the only ones struggling to reconcile a beloved family-friendly institutional culture with seemingly less family-friendly policies and practices. We decided to conduct a study of our own.

The Study

This was a new research area for all of us. We conducted a literature review, drafted research questions, and submitted an application to our university’s institutional review board. The following primary research questions guided our mixed-methods (qualitative and quantitative) study:

  • What kinds of policies and practices exist on college and university campuses that address the presence on campus of children of employees (faculty and staff, regardless of gender)?
  • How do these policies, norms, and expectations about employees’ children affect employees’ personal and professional lives?

In February 2020, we used purposive sampling—a selective, nonrandom approach to choosing a survey population—to distribute a survey in academic social-media groups and through professional organization email lists. Our intent was to obtain baseline data about how policies on children in the workplace have affected campus employees’ personal and professional lives. In the survey, participants (N = 278) answered questions about demographics, professional background, organizational climate, and policies addressing the presence of children on campus. We also conducted in-depth, semistructured interviews with twenty-two staff and faculty parents between May and July 2020. We learned a great deal from the survey responses and the interviews and will publish the full results in an academic journal.

Key Findings

In what follows, we provide an initial picture of policies on children in the workplace based on our study and raise some questions that we hope future research will address.

Existence of Policies

Two-hundred and fifty participants completed a survey item asking whether their institution had a policy addressing the presence of children on campus. Among those participants, 69 people responded, “I am not sure”; 121 responded, “No, my institution does not have a policy like this, and we are not in the process of developing one”; 6 responded, “No, my institution does not have a policy like this, but I think we are in the process of developing one”; and 54 responded, “Yes, my institution has a policy like this.”

Types of Institutions

Those 54 participants who reported that their college or university had a policy addressing the presence of children on campus worked at thirty unique institutions (some participants opted not to identify their institution and others reported working for the same institution). Plotting the locations of the thirty respondent-identified institutions on a map revealed that such policies exist at colleges and universities across the country, including campuses in rural, urban, and suburban settings located in the South, in the Midwest, and on both coasts. In addition to institutions that already have such a policy, 6 respondents said their college or university did not have a policy but was developing one. Perhaps even more interesting, 69 respondents (approximately 28 percent) responded that they were “unsure” whether their institution had such a policy.

The thirty institutions reported in our sample varied notably in several key areas:

  • Seventeen were four-year public colleges or universities, seven were two-year public colleges, and six were private.
  • Seven institutions were classified as exclusively associate’s colleges.
  • Two were classified as baccalaureate/associate’s colleges
  • Three were classified as exclusively baccalaureate colleges.
  • Two were classified as master’s colleges and universities.
  • Nine were classified as doctoral universities with high (N = 4) or very high (N = 5) research.
  • Six were classified as doctoral/professional universities.
  • One was classified as a special-focus four-year institution.
  • Of the four-year institutions (N = 23), eight were primarily nonresidential, eight were primarily residential, and seven were highly residential.
  • Student enrollment ranged from 427 to more than 37,000.

Nature of the Policies

After investigating the characteristics of the thirty respondent-identified institutions that have a policy, we attempted to locate the policies online. We were able to find published policies on children in the workplace for only ten of the institutions.

We carefully read and analyzed the policies to identify similarities and differences among them. In general, the policies use very similar language. Most identify the purpose and scope of the policy and define terms such as child, caregiver, and high-risk area. The policies outline the contexts and times in which employees can bring their children to campus. Some are very specific, such as the following example: “Children of employees are allowed in the workplace for brief visits, generally no longer than two (2) hours.” Others say that employees may bring children to the workplace “only occasionally with supervisor’s approval.” And still others forbid it, either strictly (“University employees are prohibited from bringing children on campus during work hours”) or using less stark language (“the University requests that employees not be accompanied by minor children during the employee’s normal working hours”).

All the policies describe the parameters within which employees may bring minor children to campus. Most, but not all, require the employee to get supervisor approval to bring a minor child to campus. Many of the policies say that employees may not bring minor children to campus “as a substitute or alternative for regular childcare.” Two institutions have policies that specifically state that it is not appropriate for children to be in the workplace during breaks, closures, or before or after instructional hours. One states that children may be brought to campus “when common sense would dictate that it is more efficient for the employee to bring the child into the workplace (for example, following or before a physician’s appointment if the child is not contagious).” Parts of some policies use identical language: for instance, two institutions state that “bringing children to the workplace on a recurrent basis during their school breaks, closures, or before/after school care, or lack of childcare” is not appropriate or permitted.

Almost all of the policies gesture toward a legal rationale for the stipulations, using words such as liability, hazards, high-risk, safety, and danger. Many list the specific physical spaces from which minor children are prohibited, including areas containing confidential information, laboratories, mechanical shops, studios, the power plant, equipment rooms, maintenance rooms, the physical-plant garage, food-preparation areas, fine and performing arts areas, fountains, swimming pools, playing fields, and areas where chemicals are stored. One of the ten specifically mentions that children may not be brought into classrooms. Six of the ten mention that sick children may not be brought to campus.

Many of the policies state that children’s presence on campus is prohibited because it might disrupt the workplace, negatively affect productivity, or interfere with workplace activities. One policy states that institutional computers are not to be used by minor children. Nine of ten policies require that the child’s parents supervise the child at all times. Two of the ten list termination of one’s appointment as a possible consequence for violation of the policy.

Questions Raised

Although we now know more about these policies than we did before we began our research, much more research is needed. Below is a list of questions our experience and research have raised thus far:

  • How do these policies affect faculty? How do they affect staff?
  • How do these policies differently affect male and female employees?
  • How do these policies affect students with or without children? Even if the policies do not specifically address the children of students, our experience suggests that such policies may create the feeling among students and community members that the university is not a place for children. This (potential) consequence is antithetical to efforts to increase access to higher education for diverse student populations.
  • How do these policies affect the recruitment and retention of staff and faculty? What about the recruitment and retention of parent students?
  • What kinds of institutions are more likely to have these policies? Is there a relationship between policies on children in the workplace and institutional size, type, location, availability of childcare, and political leanings of the surrounding community and of university leadership?
  • Are colleges and universities with more women staff and faculty more or less likely to have policies on children in the workplace?
  • What is the institutional rationale for these policies?
  • Is there a way for universities to mitigate their risk without restricting children from campus or limiting their presence (for example, through liability waivers)?
  • What does it mean for an institution to be “family-friendly”? Who decides what is family-friendly and what is not?
  • Of the participants who reported having a policy and who identified their institution, we could not find policies online for two-thirds of the listed institutions. This suggests that either these policies are not publicly available (they are housed on an intranet) or that participants erroneously believed a policy existed. Further, more than 25 percent of the respondents did not know whether their institutions had a policy at all. Is a policy necessary if beliefs or norms about the appropriateness of children on campus already exist without necessarily being codified in policy? The answer to this question may help determine the best practices when crafting policy.

Notes Toward a Conclusion

We hope that this article inspires future research on this important topic. We need to know more about the existence and enforcement of policies and practices that address the presence of children on campus and their impact on employees’ and students’ personal and professional lives. We also hope that this article motivates students, staff, and faculty to take steps to make their campus more family-friendly. Work through existing channels of shared governance and create new ones. Speak up in committee meetings where you can advocate for policies and practices that welcome children and families. Work with your diversity, equity, and inclusion office to advocate for family-friendliness. Offer to implement a professional-development training workshop on supporting students who are caregivers. If your institution already has a policy addressing the presence of children on campus, ask that it be officially reviewed so that your campus community can discuss whether the language in the policy matches the institution’s existing or desired culture. If your faculty is unionized, contact your union representatives to help with the process. Use existing infrastructure to work with cognizant campus administrators to push for an increase in family-friendly policies, practices, and spaces.

In pandemic-era and postpandemic settings, policies need to be reconsidered as institutions learn to adapt to an ever-changing set of expectations, policies, and state and federal health guidelines. For the past two years, we have advocated for flexible work hours and expectations. We have asked our supervisors to trust us to do our work and to be understanding when family obligations interrupt that work. We are taking on the burden of trying to help our university become more aware of what “family-friendly” policies and institutional support really look like for academic parents and caregivers. We echo the words of Kelly Ward and Lisa Wolf-Wendel, who stated in their 2012 book, Academic Motherhood, “Creating a campus culture that allows faculty members to combine work and family is good for everyone; it will enhance faculty recruitment and retention, lead to higher faculty morale, and it will, in the end, be good for the institution as well as its faculty.” We believe this is true for staff as well.

At our university, we continue to collaborate with administrators who will help us advocate for more family-friendly spaces across our campus. We consistently raise these issues in department, college, and university committees. We started a professional women’s organization on our campus to organize women employees to advocate for ourselves and to serve as a liaison to upper administration. Conducting this research is raising our awareness of policies that contribute to the kind of family-friendly institutional culture we want to maintain and nurture. We remain motivated to continue working with administrators at our university to create initiatives to make the campus more friendly for children and families, and we look forward to conducting additional research of our own and to learning from others who conduct future research on this critical topic.

Further Reading

Cardel, Michelle I., Emily Dhurandhar, Ceren Yarar-Fisher, Monica Foster, Bertha Hidalgo, Leslie A. McClure, Sherry Pagoto, Nathanial Brown, Dori Pekmezi, Noha Sharafeldin, Amanda L. Willig, and Christine Agelini. “Turning Chutes into Ladders for Women Faculty: A Review and Roadmap for Equity in Academia.” Journal of Women's Health 29, no. 5 (2020): 721‒33.

Crawford, Leah C., and Kerry F. Crawford. “Best Practices for Normalizing Parents in the Academy: Higher- and Lower-Order Processes and Women and Parents’ Success.” PS: Political Science and Politics 53, no. 2 (2020): 275–80. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096519001938.

Denson, Nida, Katalin Szelényi, and Kate Bresonis. “Correlates of Work-Life Balance for Faculty across Racial/Ethnic Groups.” Research in Higher Education 59, no. 2 (2018): 226–47.

Sallee, Margaret, Kelly Ward, and Lisa Wolf-Wendel. “Can Anyone Have It All?: Gendered Views on Parenting and Academic Careers.” Innovative Higher Education, 41, no. 3 (June 2016): 187–202. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10755-015-9345-4.

Ward, Kelly, and Lisa Wolf-Wendel. Academic Motherhood: How Faculty Manage Work and Family. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012.

Windsor, Leah C., and Kerry F. Crawford. “Best Practices for Normalizing Parents in the Academy: Higher- and Lower-Order Processes and Women and Parents’ Success.” PS: Political Science and Politics 53, no. 2 (2000): 275‒80.

Zahneis, Megan. “When Colleges Frown on Kids on Campus—or Even Ban Them.” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 9, 2020. https://www.chronicle.com/article/When-Colleges-Frown-on-Kids-on/247831.

Heather K. Olson Beal is professor of education studies at Stephen F. Austin State University and the mother of three children who guide and shape her scholarship and teaching. Her email address is [email protected]. Lauren E. Brewer is associate professor of psychology at SFA and the mother of a young child; much of her scholarship and service focuses on the psychological, social, and financial costs associated with parenthood. Her email address is [email protected]. Chrissy Cross is associate professor of education studies at SFA. Her research focuses on qualitative research methodologies, retention, and persistence of STEM educators and “motherscholarhood” in academia. Her email address is [email protected]. Shelby J. Gull is the head of the Whiteville branch of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and the mother of a teenager. Her scholarship has been shaped by motherhood and through interactions with the natural world. Her email address is shelby.jean[email protected].