On the afternoon of Feb. 8, parents and children crowded into the University of Minnesota’s Morrill Hall. With mittened hands, the children presented a letter with 3,000 signatures to President Eric Kaler, outlining why the U should preserve its renowned Child Development Center — which, for 45 years, has trained teachers, supported research, and provided outreach to the state. Despite faculty, staff, and students’ research-based opposition to closing the center, in last week’s report to the Board of Regents, Kaler cast the outcry as an “emotional” response by parents. This is not about complaining parents; this is about stewardship of university resources.
The Child Development Center is a national model for early childhood education, and has been widely praised by experts in the field, notably in its most recent external review (July 2017). It is deeply integrated with the U’s research, teaching, and outreach missions: theater students study toddler movement; pediatric residents observe infants; researchers pilot curriculum. Seventy-five percent of the teachers certified in early childhood education at the U complete their practicum hours in the center, whose all-day, year-round programming mirrors the conditions in their profession.
Benefits the entire state
The center further benefits the state of Minnesota, regularly hosting government officials and school representatives eager to learn from its “whole-child” philosophy, which prepares children remarkably well for kindergarten and beyond. This training and outreach aligns with the “Minnesota’s Best Workforce” statute’s goal of giving all children in the state access to high-quality early childhood education.
In announcing the center’s closure, university leadership also announced a Request for Proposals (RFP) for child care on campus, expressing its interest in a partner in the “business” of child care. The U claims that contracting to an outside provider at some unknown location will produce cost savings. This is a strategic error. We need only look to our peers for an example of how corporate care neither results in cost savings nor benefits a university’s mission. Just a few years ago, Penn State attempted public-private partnership for on-campus child care, but abandoned the arrangement when the corporate provider’s fees proved higher than the cost for the university to manage child care itself. Closing the center and beginning an RFP process is not responsible management of university funds or taxpayer dollars.
Better solutions exist. The U has attempted to justify the center’s closure by pitting it against improvements to its part-day Shirley Moore Lab School, an argument that directly conflicts with the 2017 external review’s recommendation to better integrate the two institutions and exploit their synergies. There are many possible paths to integration, but they have not been explored. Cannibalizing one institution for the other will restrict the U’s leadership in the field of early childhood education. Instead, the U should be expanding the national model for early childhood education and care that it already has in the center so that more children — at the U and across Minnesota — can benefit from its world-class staff’s expertise.
Center’s scalability has been proven
The U must find a new administrative home for the center and make it accessible to more employees. The center has been criticized for its limited capacity, yet this is not a problem inherent to the institution, whose scalability is proven: In 1992, it expanded from 75 to 140 children. The problem is limited U investment in this resource. A university-wide office such as Human Resources — which recruits, retains, and supports employees — would be a natural home for the center. Yet the U argues that the center is not an employee benefit because it does not serve the entire university.
This logic is false. First, few benefits serve all employees, all the time; most are life-stage and lifestyle dependent. Second, it reveals a blindness to the fact that competitors inside and outside academia use on-site child care to attract the best and brightest early in their careers (a time that often coincides with family formation).
The center’s closure must immediately be halted. Each day, the possibility of retaining this model program diminishes. President Kaler has dedicated substantial resources to measuring and enhancing employee engagement, maintaining that “happy and engaged employees deliver extraordinary services.” If the university closes the center, thousands of supporters will view the U’s leadership as out of touch with its employees’ fundamental needs, and poor stewards of university resources.
Colleen Flaherty Manchester, Alice Lovejoy, and Tracy Twine are associate professors at the University of Minnesota, in the Carlson School of Management, College of Liberal Arts, and College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences, respectively.
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