When school let out around 3 p.m, assistant professor Shelby Laird’s 10-year-old daughter used to cross a side street and walk to her office on the Stephen F. Austin State University campus. She’d wait there for about 30 minutes until her father finished his shift at the local hospital and could pick her up.

As far as Laird was concerned, the arrangement was perfect: The 100-yard walk gave her daughter independence, and it saved the family hundreds of dollars a year in after-school child care that was hard to come by in Nacogdoches County.

Then Laird got wind of a new policy — that would restrict how often employees’ children visit the East Texas campus — that threatened to upend her family’s child care arrangement.

“I’m going to have to leave early every day,” Laird thought when she heard about the policy. “I want to be the best professor that I can be — be available to my students, be on campus,” she said. But administrative staff and faculty members, with debt from their doctorate degrees, “can’t afford $350 a month in after-school childcare,” she said.

She wound up leaving her position as an assistant forestry professor and moved to North Carolina with her family in June, citing the proposed policy as one factor.

Although restrictions on children’s presence in the workplace are common, the introduction of one at Stephen F. Austin has been met with monthslong resistance from some faculty members — who say it is anathema to the school’s heritage as a teaching college and will disproportionately penalize women. It comes as higher-education officials across the country have sought to prioritize the recruitment and retention of underrepresented demographics, like racial minorities and women, in academia’s ranks.

At Stephen F. Austin, “attracting and supporting” high-quality employees is a pillar in the university’s strategic plan, and “family benefits” were deemed “very important” by nearly half the respondents to a 2016 survey of employees. In 2018, women made up more than half the teaching faculty at the school, which is one of four public universities in Texas unaffiliated with a larger system.

The university’s governing board is expected to discuss the policy later this month. It would bar children from being on campus in lieu of regular child care, and it says a minor’s presence “cannot disrupt the workplace.” The purpose is to support “a healthy balance between workplace obligations and family,” a draft of the policy says, and violating it could result in termination.

Loretta Doty, the human resources director at Stephen F. Austin, said the language about termination is in several school policies and that sanctions are applied with discretion. An investigation and progressive disciplinary measures would precede termination.

Doty said she proposed the policy after hearing a series of complaints last summer about children disturbing the work environment. Employees had pushed back against supervisors, citing the lack of a rule barring children’s presence. “Those situations created the necessity for this policy,” she said.

“While we welcome young children and families to campus, we also must provide guidelines to protect children and to maintain a professional workplace environment,” Doty said. “The policy language is written in a sensitive manner that allows for certain exceptions while ensuring that the workplace remains productive and focused on teaching, research and providing a transformative experience for our students.”

Initially, the draft policy was poorly received, Doty said. There was an “incorrect perception” that it would amount to a wholesale ban on children visiting campus — when, in fact, it lets children come for special occasions, infrequent visits or events that are open to the public, she said.

But The Texas Tribune spoke to about a dozen current and former employees who say they or some of their peers remain adamantly opposed to the policy, in part because it is unrealistic for working parents receiving salaries that are generally lower than administrators’.

Among them is Chrissy Cross, an assistant professor of education, who said there are few options for parents who require short-term help, like if the university is meeting on a day elementary schools have off.

“What other choice do I have but to bring my kids or to take a personal day?” said Cross, who said she had not found nearby day cares that offer drop-in services. “If I take a personal day, then that decreases my productivity because I can’t teach my students. My students are left in the lurch because they plan to go to class, they plan to see me in my office … and I’ve never had a student say, ‘Oh, why is that little kid in your office? That’s super distracting to me.’”

Nearly all the current and former employees interviewed by The Texas Tribune were afraid to be named publicly for fear they would be professionally penalized, including by being denied tenure or dinged in future job interviews.

Doty said the university does not discriminate against any of its employees or assume that only women are responsible for child care.

The Tribune also obtained a video of a faculty forum where employees railed against an early draft of the proposal and reviewed the anonymized results of a university-wide survey on it.

Those results show 73% of the respondents were against an initial version of the policy, with some calling it “Big Brother-ish,” “heavy handed” and “an overreaction” to a situation that should be dealt with in one-on-one conversations.

(Forty-seven percent of the respondents were students, whose children would not be affected by the proposal.)

Other respondents complained that children had been romping in the hallways or playing on rolling office chairs.

“A workplace is a workplace” even if a “college has softer environs than an auto plant,” one person wrote. Another said it was selfish of employees to bring their children to work instead of paying for child care or making other arrangements.

Since the survey was conducted, a faculty committee has modified the policy and changed much of its language. Three employees, all of whom requested anonymity, said the latest version is more family friendly. “It’s innocuous enough,” one said. “I’ll give the administration credit for heeding faculty objections.”

Jeremy Stovall, the current chair of the Faculty Senate, said he thought there were still employees who remain opposed to the policy even though “overall receptiveness” to it had improved with time.

He said Doty and others were transparent, took faculty concerns seriously and participated alongside his predecessor in a significant number of calls and emails about the proposal.

“I do not believe the administration, faculty or staff anticipated the development of this policy, until it was necessitated by the actions of a small number of individuals,” Stovall said. “Given the need for a solution, I believe this was an excellent example of how shared governance can and should work.”

Brigettee Carnes Henderson, the chair of the school’s governing board, said she had been in contact with legal counsel and was aware of the on-campus debate over the policy.

“If it’s important to you as a family, you will solve the problem”

Although enforcement — and even knowledge — of children in the workplace policies varies from campus to campus, many schools have similar rules on their books.

Andy Brantley, the president of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, said schools are typically “very flexible and accommodating.” Most institutions have policies that outline when a child can be on campus and the reasons that “extended or frequent visits of a child are not permissible,” he said in a statement.

Lynn Pasquerella, head of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, similarly said such policies are common across the country. She said they are particularly prevalent at public schools concerned about liability over children’s safety. Many bar the presence of sick children or forbid minors from entering hazardous areas like equipment rooms, as Stephen F. Austin’s would.

Pasquerella said debates like that at the East Texas school seem rare because many children in the workplace policies have been in place for years. They predate the increasingly widespread discussions — in higher education and other sectors — about how to balance work with employees’ family obligations.

Those efforts “usually involve the creation of day care centers, after care centers and lactation centers,” Pasquerella said. “There are other ways to make it easier for women, in particular, to stay in the workplace.”

Stephen F. Austin installed lactation rooms and changing tables in the last 18 months, after urging from faculty members. There had previously been three bathrooms with diaper changing stations. The university also operates a charter school with kindergarten through fifth grade, hosts summer camps for kids and runs a nationally recognized child care program for a price.

One former employee pointed to those programs and to a “flex-schedule” policy — which lets some staff work modified schedules — as examples of Stephen F. Austin’s family friendly culture. The former employee said child care is the responsibility of the parents and that the obligation shouldn’t come as a surprise years after the child is born.

“Hire a college student, hire a graduate assistant, drive to Lufkin,” the former employee said. “If it’s important to you as a family, you will solve the problem.”

But employees who oppose the policy say working parents face an uphill battle at Stephen F. Austin, in part because the offerings are financially untenable for academics squeezed by loans. They’re likely even more out of reach for the administrative assistants, janitors and other support staff working at the university who don’t have the flexibility in their schedules that faculty members do.

Amanda Rudolph, a professor at Stephen F. Austin, said one year she paid $18,000 to enroll her three children in the university’s child care program.

Cross, the assistant education professor, said she hired a babysitter one summer while she was teaching a course on campus. It cost her more than half the $3,500 she earned, she said. “It wasn’t even worth me doing it because I was spending so much on child care.”

The child care program at Stephen F. Austin costs up to $925 a month, for infant care, with an additional $300-a-year fee for supplies. Summer camps cost anywhere from $50 to several hundred dollars per week for sleep-away programs, and sometimes don’t last the full work day.

Doty, the human resources director, said the school offers benefits to parents, like a pretax deduction from their compensation to cover child care. She said she had not heard of any plans in place to expand those accommodations.

“There must be a level of separation”

Although the faculty committee revamped the proposed policy, some employees say the damage has already been done.

Several said they were drawn to Stephen F. Austin’s family friendly culture and had moved away from extended family or metropolitan areas with more child care options to be there.

Others said the rule was overly prescriptive and demonstrated a campus environment that does not respect school faculty members, whose pay averages among the lowest quartile of public universities in Texas.

Doty said the cost of living is lower in East Texas than in more metropolitan parts of the state. She said the school feels “that the majority of our employees agree that while workplace obligations and family should be balanced, there are certain times when there must be a level of separation.”

Laird, the former employee who moved to North Carolina, said she is “worried” for her old colleagues.

“As a professor, and particularly an assistant professor, you’re working 60 to 80 hours a week easily,” she said. “Carrying that workload and having this extra worry about whether or not you’re going to get in trouble if your kid is caught in your office for half an hour — it’s not worth it.”

Disclosure: The Stephen F. Austin State University Board of Regents has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.