Vanderbilt lengthens paid parental leave, to hire women’s health coordinator

The reproductive health task force announced the changes, including a fund for out of state abortions, in the wake of restrictions to reproductive healthcare access in Tennessee.

The Student Health Center, as photographed on May 17, 2020. (Hustler Multimedia/Emily Gonçalves)

Emily Gonçalves

The Student Health Center, as photographed on May 17, 2020. (Hustler Multimedia/Emily Gonçalves)

Ben Arthur, Staff Writer

In response to a statewide abortion ban, Vanderbilt expanded paid parental leave to eight weeks for eligible staff and announced the creation of a Women’s Health and Parenting Resource Coordinator on Aug. 3. These changes come as the university’ reproductive health task force researches and implements updates to various policies, including parental leave and reproductive rights resources.

Following the Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade (1973), Tennessee’s abortion trigger law will go into effect on Aug. 25, replacing the current six-week abortion ban. The law includes an exemption for cases where an abortion is deemed necessary to prevent the death or significant bodily harm of a mother. There are no exceptions for early term abortions, incest or rape.

University representatives said these changes are meant to support students, faculty and staff in light of the passage of the state abortion law. 

“We fully affirm women’s health, educational opportunity and employment opportunity within the context of the new legal landscape,” Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs C. Cybele Raver said in an Aug. 3 press release. “We have established and will continue to refine a wide range of options to equitably support people who become pregnant and reduce the added complexities at work, and in life, that often accompany family planning, pregnancy and parenting.”

 

Paid parental leave

Prior to the Aug. 3 extension, Vanderbilt offered staff two weeks of paid parental leave for staff. Faculty members receive one semester of paid parental leave. Any further time off for parental leave must go unpaid or the parent can apply for short-term disability leave. 

According to Associate Vice Chancellor for Health and Wellness Pam Jones, more updated leave information, including the start date of the extension, will be available in the coming weeks on the reproductive health task force website.

Laurel Schneider, professor of gender studies and religious studies, religion and culture, said she believes paid parental leave is crucial for child development. 

“There is no understating the importance of new parents and children bonding for all of us, for the good of all of us,” Schneider said. “It’s not just about helping them do better with their babies. It’s really the vision of the future.”

 

Funding for unexpected, burdensome costs

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the university has operated a Student Critical Support Fund (formerly the Student Hardship Fund) and an Employee Critical Support Fund (formerly Employee Hardship Fund) for all students, faculty and staff. These two funds provide financial support for unexpected costs that may burden students or faculty, including medical procedures and out-of-state travel for said medical procedure. 

During an Aug. 10 Community Town Hall on Reproductive Health, Jones explained that these programs can apply to abortion procedures. She said further information on how to apply for abortion-related funding through these initiatives will be available in the coming weeks.

“We’ve always had mechanisms to support students and employees with special needs, but this can be used for procedures that are not available in the state of Tennessee. We want to support our entire community because we recognize that this is a very personal and very pertinent issue for many,” Jones said.

Junior Angela Yan, VSG Speaker of the Senate, said she was pleased with the inclusion of reproductive health costs in the fund’s scope.

“I personally like the restructuring of the Student Critical Support Fund and clarifying that it can be used for any reproductive health care, not just including abortion,” Yan said. “That was something that we had advocated really hard for when we sent the proposals to Dean Black.” 

In June, VSG members met with Dean of Students G.L. Black to propose changes to further protect reproductive rights on campus, including an out-of-state abortion fund. The Graduate Student Council (GSC) is also suggesting reforms to Black, who will be attending the group’s next meeting.

GSC Vice President Kyra Smart, a third-year graduate student, stated that these initiatives, specifically the Women Health Coordinator, should be fine-tuned for graduate students. Through her position on the GSC, Smart said she has been discussing with fellow students ways in which they can make lasting changes in healthcare and student support.

“Graduate students are especially vulnerable, right, because we don’t make much money and we’re pretty young and at risk to be meeting these sorts of healthcare options” Smart said.

Reproductive resource coordinator

According to the university press release, the Women’s Health and Parenting Resource Coordinator will be the first point of contact for pregnant Vanderbilt community members. The individual will be available for “open, unbiased and supportive” communication about women’s health and will navigate resources and pregnancy care options. 

Jones said the new coordinator will split time between the Employee Assistance Program and the University Counseling Center (UCC). Vanderbilt community members will be able to set up an appointment via the appropriate program with the resource coordinator. Jones added that this partnership with other campus resources attempts to promote the use of other mental health resourc

“We feel like that is a really good way to do it because it will promote accessing additional services,” Jones said. “We want people to be able to access services related to their mental health in the session, the stress associated with parenting, reproductive rights, you know, you name it, the stress is out there. So we were going to try to really combine that good work to be sure that we maximize our effectiveness.”

Generation Action Co-Vice President and junior Gayatri Aluri expressed concerns about the ability for the coordinator to provide care in a timely manner given its connection with the UCC.

“These are very time dependent, very pressing urgent issues,” Aluri said. “It’s a very short turnaround between when someone finds out that they’re pregnant and how long they have to make a decision and act on it. It is impossible to get an appointment with the UCC. You’re given a short window of time you can work with, and it’s difficult to schedule once you do get a counseling session.”

Yan said the new coordinator role is a good first step toward improving reproductive care at Vanderbilt. 

“Having a direct administrator to help students access reproductive health care will be super helpful,” Yan said. 

However, Yan mentioned that the task force was not gender inclusive when deciding upon the name of the role. She added that the university’s prior terminology in response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade were less gendered, and hopes that alterations can be made to the title to reflect this approach. 

“We talked a lot about ‘do we use the terminology women’s health?’ Because that’s a standardly understood terminology, at least in the healthcare sector, we decided to use that for now,” \ Jones said during the Community Town Hall. “Please don’t think that that terminology is not inclusive, and we recognize that it’s not the perfect term, but we want people to understand what we’re trying to do.

The Title IX Office will also assist with medical and pregnancy-care-related accommodations for students, faculty, staff and postdoctoral scholars. Likewise, the Student Health Center will offer support regarding sexual and reproductive care, including free emergency oral contraception, per Black. 

“The task force is developing a rapid access protocol that will allow Student Health to be able to connect students who may need other emergency contraception or may have other urgent reproductive health service needs,” Black said during the town hall.

According to Louise Hanson, medical director at the Student Health Center, the center has offered free emergency contraceptive pills to all students since 1999. In addition, she said IUDs, which are free under the 2022-23 Student Health Insurance Plan, have been available at the Student Health Center since the early 2010s. Otherwise, Hanson said students would be referred to the obstetrics and gynecology department at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and the student’s insurance would be billed.

“The clinic carries two types of emergency contraceptive pills, and each patient’s medical situation dictates which one is used,” Hanson said.