Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Time 2019 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Imagining Family-Friendly, By Priya Saibel (Ethnography of the University 2019: Focus on Time)

This final paper was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum courses ANT473 and ANT6200, “Ethnography of the University 2019: Focus on Time”

What does ‘family-friendly’ mean to students at U of T? How did the Family Care Office (FCO) emerge at the University? And, how does the University address ‘family-friendly?’ This paper considers time and the student-parent at the University and what it means for a university to be ‘family-friendly.’ From my initial observations across campus, I noticed the student-parent ‘sticking out’ out of the campus population demonstrating an awkward fit in academic life. Their rhythms, movements and behaviours were shaped not only by deadlines but by their children. The student-parent appeared to be the embodiment of time-stress. I began to wonder how does the student-parent balance the temporalities of childrearing and academic time and how are they supported by the Uuniversity? My discussions with student-parent interlocutors confirmed that they were It soon became evident that the condition of the student-parent is one of grappling with multiple, competing temporalities, begging the question of how so what became more interesting was to uncover the ways in which the University attends to their needs of the student-parent. Inspired by Ahmed’s (2006; 2007; 2012) work on diversity in institutional life, I began to follow ‘family-friendly’ around the University to understand the world that unfolds when ‘family-friendly’ becomes a description. 

In 1986, the Varsity student newspaper carried a condom ad which proposed that male students should not be parents: parenthood was out of sync with their life stage, which should be focused on academics and preparing for a career. Today, the University of Toronto promotes itself as a ‘family-friendly’ institution and is awarded prizes for its programs. Yet, I will argue, family-friendly initiatives are designed principally for employees, while for students, parenthood is still treated as out of sync, leaving student-parents, for the most part, to struggle to meet financial needs and conflicting time demands on their own. What will become evident in this paper is that for student-parents, the university’s claims to being family-friendly ring hollow. To make this argument I draw on theories of temporal asynchronicity (Rosa, Nielsen & Sarauw), and documentary performance (Ahmed, Riles, Strathern). After a brief outline of these theoretical resources, I examine the historical context in which family-friendly policies emerged at U of T; then I conduct a close analysis of the documents that present U of T a family-friendly place, exposing their performative function; finally I describe the experience of student parents, and the gap between claims and realities. I conclude with recommendations for bridging the gap of family-friendly policies and translating these to the student-parent.

Theoretical Underpinnings: Time, the Student-Parent and ‘Family-Friendly’


Through my ethnographic work on time and the University, I employed Ahmed’s (2012) method of following ‘family-friendly’ around to understand the work that it generates, how it is attended to by the University and how it is experienced by student-parents. My ethnography consisted of observations, interviews, archival research and the study of documents. The observations across campus, at the student family housing buildings on Charles Street and at the FCO allowed me to witness ‘family-friendly’ coming to life at the University. My interview with an employee at the FCO allowed me to understand how practitioners attend to family care initiatives set in place by the University and how their work in turn can enforce institutional pride. Interviewing the former student member of the Governing Council gave me insight into the University’s reporting structures, the policies in place pertaining to ‘family-friendly,’ and the different approaches towards students. I conducted unstructured interviews with graduate student-parents to allow for their experiences, feelings and perceptions around ‘family-friendly’ initiatives to surface organically. Finally, I examined numerous documents, from archival to contemporary, employing them as ethnographic sites to elucidate the ways in which the University treats and claims itself as ‘family-friendly’ and how the documents work to enforce the University’s commitment of being a ‘Top Family-Friendly Employer’ in Canada. 

Theoretical Underpinnings: Time, the Student-Parent and ‘Family-Friendly’

In this section, I craft a theoretical framework on time, the student-parent and ‘family-friendly’ initiatives. First, I will draw on Rosa (2013) and Nielsen & Sarauw (2018) to highlight the multiple temporalities and the specific challenges to student-parents. I then turn to Ahmed (2006; 2007; 2012), Riles (2006) and Strathern (2006) to assess the documentary performance of ‘family-friendly’ initiatives, which have allowed for the University to claim itself as a ‘family-friendly’ place.

Rosa (2013) highlights multiple temporalities that are useful in conceptualizing time. He points to three distinct timeframes: daily time, lifetime and epochal time. Accordingly, “All three levels have… their own temporal patterns (rhythms, sequences, speeds, synchronization requirements) and perspectives. Second, they are to a great extent determined by social structures. (ibid: 9) For Rosa (2013: 10), “We constantly have to orient our action toward the complementary activities and time patterns of our interaction partners and secure at least temporary synchronization.” Temporary synchronization becomes particularly challenging for student-parents to achieve when we think of the added layers of consideration for childrearing. Let me elaborate. For student-parents, these all three temporal structures are impacted by childrearing as follows: daily time can also be applied to the day-to-day time of the student-parent, where the temporality is conditioned by caring for the child and balancing work, school, leisure, well-being and other daily tasks. Lifetime can be associated with the parent and how he/she is actively engaged in laying a concrete foundation for the child in the present, while drawing on experiences from the past, to help frame the future orientation of the child’s lifetime. Finally, epochal time here can be conceptualized through our era of social acceleration, the fast-paced ever accelerating conditions that work to shape, influence and inform how parents raise their applied to the generation of children.aring ??. The student-parent is constantly negotiating temporalities through their own commitments and academic time with particular attention to the needs of their child. 

Therefore the meaning of past, present, and future and the temporal pattern of action, which together determine the manner of our being-in-time, are always the complex product of structural and cultural relations and their refraction through the perspective of particular acting subjects. (Rosa 2013: 10)

In this case, the child or children could be considered the acting subjects who shape the time of the student-parent. When we are unable to achieve temporal synchronization, this creates ‘arrythmia’ or ‘temporal discordance’ (Rosa 2013; Nielsen & Sarauw 2018). At the University, the student-parent exemplifies the ‘awkward fit’ because of this asynchronicity with institutional time. 

Nielsen & Sarauw (2018) elaborate on stress and anxiety experienced by regular students in the modern-day knowledge economy. With the uncertainty of the future and job-security, students become incentivized to adopt behaviours that will make them employable in the labour market. There is added pressure to complete their programs fast (tuning up) while keeping focused on the future (tuning in), thus subjectivizing students to speed-up their pace to be able to compete for the future. Anxiety propels the unknown future and students develop ‘forecasting techniques’ to tune themselves maximally towards what they need to do in the present to ensure the success of the future. The tuning up and tuning in creates an abductive temporality, where “the student is constantly forced to orient her/himself, tacking back and forth (between a near past) (passed courses), a near future (potential courses) and a distant future, (the future labour market).” (ibid: 169, brackets in original) For the student-parent, this abductive temporality is intensified by the every-day time of childrearing. A near past is impacted by the needs of the child and what experiences a parent can borrow from past occurrences to impact the present and future of childrearing. A near future demands that the parent attend to the immediate needs of the child to unlock his/her potential, while a distant future looks to the child’s future and their capacity to succeed in that future (which is comparable to Rosa’s notion of lifetime). 

Student-parent interlocutors described how they worked We can get a sense of the shifting temporalities in which parents must work meticulously and learn to balance the potential future gains with present-time strategies. In order to maximize future outputs, student-parents must optimize present time along with childrearing. Student-parents are masters of acting in contesting temporalities, however, their rhythms don’t always align with the temporality of academic time, which at times can demand extreme attentiveness to the present. As one of my student-parent interviewees, Tony, stated, ‘it’s not a theoretical exercise for me. I have kids. It’s crazy and my job is to juggle.

I will now look to theories of documentary performance to frame howframe the description of ‘family-friendly’ is used at the University.‘family-friendly’ and how we can utilize its description as a methodological tool to understand its workings on creating perception.  Drawing on Ahmed (2012: 118), “perception itself” can work to demonstrate “the achievement and would be taken as a sign of good performance.” It is then the perception that “becomes taken up as description.” I examine the document in archival research, contemporary University reports and as a branding and marketing tool. I consider the document as an ethnographic site to grasp the use of ‘family-friendly’ at the University to explicate the document in its vehicular capacity, its ability to transport perception of family care. According to Riles (2006: 6) states that, “documents are special ethnographic subjects in one sense: they are also paradigmatic artifacts of ethnographic research… a paradigm of interpretation.” They are artifacts of modern knowledge and of bureaucracy. “The document becomes at once an ethnographic object, an analytical category, and a methodological orientation.” (ibid: 7) I have also found that documents can take on their own life form and are generative of other documents. The document can be a reference point (Ahmed 2012) and an artifact that is “used to mobilize networks of ideas, persons, and technologies.” (Riles 2006: 13) The power in the document is from the messages it conveys and the action it demands from the written word. Furthermore, in documents, the “perception itself” can work to demonstrate “the achievement and would be taken as a sign of good performance.” It is then the perception that “becomes taken up as description.” Ahmed (2012: 118)

There are specific documentary styles worth noting. Strathern (2006) encourages us to pay attention to the use of bullet-points and how the University can use them to describe itself. Bullet-points lack analysis and interpretation, they are “a form of documentary good practice” (181) but they are also “protective aversion tactics” (185) and “are nonstransformative.” (195) They work to showcase the tick-boxes of good practices while simultaneously disallowing criticism. Ahmed (2007) expands on the nonperformativity of documents by highlighting how documents can act to simply generate more documents rather than doing the work of ‘family-friendly’ initiatives. In mission statements and statements of commitment, the University can claim to be ‘behind’ ‘family-friendly’ such that these commitments become difficult to refute, as they “work to block rather than enable action, insofar as they block the recognition of the ongoing nature of ‘what’ it is the organization is committed to ‘opposing’.” (ibid: 601) This is what Ahmed terms the ‘tick-box affect,’ which is a means of performing good practice by not actually doing anything to change ‘family-friendly’ practices. Therefore, “the document becomes a fetish object, something that ‘has’ value, by being cut off from the process of documentation… its very existence is taken as evidence that the institutional world documented by the document has been overcome.” (Ahmed 2007: 597) Documents can become a ‘good practice’ in and of themselves. They are able to present actions that can be read as a ‘tick’ in the box for attending to the needs of families at the University. 

There is power in the document as it gains momentum from being circulated. It works to inform the audience of what the document claims it is doing without necessarily doing the work. Documents leave a paper trail (Ahmed 2007) and there is considerable evidence in these paper trails that frame the institution and allow it to champion itself. Documents are often more about generating the right image and allowing the University to make claims about itself through ‘speech acts.’ (Ahmed 2006; 2007; 2012). By attending to the document, I was able to uncover a wealth of meaning, strategy, purpose and discover which documents were circulated and which ones were buried under ‘confidential’ folders in the archives. This allowed me to locate which issues were prioritized and supported by the University and get at the workings of perception. Documents have the ability to “produce the very persons and societies that ostensibly use them,” (Riles 2006: 10) and thus analyzing their wording, style and tone becomes informative. 

A note on Methods

Through my ethnographic work of on time and the University, I employed Ahmed’s (2012) method of following ‘family-friendly’ around to understand the work that it generates, how it is attended to by the University and how it is experienced by student-parents. My ethnography consisted of observations, interviews, archival research and the study of using the documents.  as a field site. The observations across campus, at the student family housing buildings on Charles Street and at the FCO allowed me to witness ‘family-friendly’ coming to life at the University. My interview with an employee at the FCO allowed me to understand how practitioners attend to family care initiatives set in place by the University and how their work in turn can enforce institutional pride. Interviewing the former student member of the Governing Council gave me insight into the University’s reporting structures, the policies in place pertaining to ‘family-friendly,’ and the different approaches towards students. I conducted unstructured interviews with graduate student-parents to allow for their experiences, feelings and perceptions around ‘family-friendly’ initiatives to surface organically. Finally, I examined numerous documents, from archival to contemporary, employing them as ethnographic sites to elucidate the ways in which the University treats and claims itself as ‘family-friendly’ and how the documents work to enforce the University’s commitment of being a ‘Top Family-Friendly Employer’ in Canada. 

Fear to Belonging: History and Evolution of ‘Family-Friendly’ at UofT 

In this section, I trace the emergence, evolution and co-optation of demonstrate the work of time on ‘family-friendly’ at U of T by tracing the evolution of ‘family-friendly’ at the U of T, and its link to the  through its appearance in archival documents to understand both the perception and in what context the Family Care Office (FCO) emerged. In my research I have seen how ‘family-friendly’ under the University has been adopted, modified and even co-opted through time. It emerged in the early 1990s at a  will introduce the term ‘crisis time,’ which I define as in my analysis, which differs from Rosa’s (2013) notion of ‘the crisis of time’ which looks at time in the context of social acceleration. Crisis time can be defined as a temporality that demands urgency, immediacy, responsiveness, reaction and action.  The turning point was the Montreal massacre in 1989 xxxx but the archive revealed that the crisis had been brewing for some time. As we shall see, crisis time was an important aspect for the shift in the University adopting ‘family-friendly’ initiatives in the early 1990s.

A striking image of the To begin I will describe two distinct images of student-parent as perceived by the university prior to the crisis perception at the University. The first image is revealed in of a condom ad in The Varsity newspaper from 1986. over 30 years ago. Geared towards men to deter one from becoming a parent too early, this ad was strategically inserted near the Sports section. The representation comes across as a fear tactic with a haunting corporeal image of a male body holding an infant. The caption reads: “BIRTH CONTROL IS A BIG RESPONSIBILITY. FATHERHOOD IS EVEN BIGGER.” The text in the ad begins as follows: “One day you’ll be ready, emotionally as well as financially, to begin planning a family. Until that time comes, it’s important that you plan to share responsibility for birth control.” (The Varsity, September 8, 1986: S-5) The mention of the ‘right time’ to have a family implies that the student is not in this ‘right time’. Clearly, the student is not equipped financially nor emotionally to handle the responsibility of a family while pursuing an academic program. In 1986, the University was indirectly using shock tactics to discourage students from starting families. The black and white print is representative of propaganda with messaging that actively reinforces family aversion. After all, you, student-parent, are not yet ready for a family. We can further analyze this as the University’s judgement and position of student-parenting circa 1986.  

A few years later, in 1993, the university created the Family Care Office, Yet, we fast forward a few decades and the perception towards student-parents differs drastically in the imagery of family care. The FCO emerges in 1993 with a motto of belonging for every family. The imagery for the FCO today is is now bright, colourful and cuddly, as if a box of Crayola crayons were used to capture the prototype of each type of family. The ‘family’ images include a single mother and child, heterosexual parents and child, same-sex parents and child and a pregnant woman presented altogether on a white background. This image is designed to make us feel happy, accepted and safe. Now, the student-parent can finally belong and can be welcomed into a family-loving community. We have come a long way from the fear-mongering imagery of an incapable, unready, unfit and out-of-place student-father with a baby. So, what exactly changed? What prompted the University to change the perception of the student-parent? 

The shift arose through activism by the Status of Women’s office and women students, staff and faculty out of the extreme violence against women that was rampant in our colleges, universities and society at large during the 1980s. After the revised Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into legislation in the early 1980s, attending to anti-sex discrimination in the workplace took precedence and was forefront on the institutional agenda, particularly at U of T. Yet, this initial advocacy work into anti-sex discrimination at U of T came out of the Librarian’s Association in 1975. A task force was established by the University’s Business Affairs Committee and the Internal Affairs Committee to examine policy issues as they affected non-academic women and to proceed to make recommendations to the appropriate committees. Out of the equal pay for equal work movement, the Report on the status of non-academic women (Supplement, UofT Bulletin 21 March 1975) established the following guiding principles:

a) Personnel policies should be developed from a university-wide perspective. 

b) All full-time non-academic employees, regardless of division, department, sex, or marital status, should receive equitable treatment relative to personnel policies. 

c) Personnel policies should create an environment in which non-academic employees are able to realize their potential for positive and creative contributions to the aims of the University. 

d) It is incumbent on the University to make clear, both through its policies and in their implementation, its opposition to sexual bias in employment conditions, remuneration, and promotional opportunities.  

The task force called on the Governing Council to allocate the financial resources necessary to ensure the implementation of the above principles. This early advocacy work set the tone across the University to adhere to and abide by anti-sex discrimination policies. 

During the 1980s the violence against women escalated in the horrific 1989 l’École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal, where 14 women lost their lives. This crisis time culminated in mobilizing action for women’s rights in universities across the country. In an issue of The Bulletin (Jan 8, 1990), there was outrage towards the University for not taking violence around women seriously, “Status of women officer…said U of T is not blameless in engendering sexist attitudes among its students.” There were calls for more education around women’s studies, for men to form discussion groups to address the stereotypes around gender roles and for more funding from the university to “expand its sexual harassment, employment equity and status of women offices.” Slews of committees were created, conferences were initiated, reports were circulated, and awareness materials were developed to put an end to anti-feminist violence. Because women were seen as the majority of primary caregivers, this allowed the platform for family-friendly initiatives to come to fruition. “U of T’s environment evolved to suit men who didn’t face significant interruptions by such family responsibilities as child-bearing and childrearing. Systemic changes are required to provide fair opportunities for women.” (The Women’s Audit, Spring 1990) It was the Women’s Audit that recommended that the University account for childcare concerns in its long-term planning as the policies that were in place to achieve equality and fairness for women were “non-existent or underdeveloped.” The Audit further stipulated that “The administration needs to take a bolder, more active, and more facilitating stance to improve the status of women at the University of Toronto.” It was in this context that the FCO came into existence, out of crisis time and the Audit’s call to action that “Better support services are needed if women are to succeed at UofT.” The Status of Women Officer at the time indicated that childcare was her top priority and drafted her recommendations into a report. Implementation of her recommendations were tasked to the Advisory Committee to the Status of Women to develop an ‘institutional culture’ that would be “receptive to and supportive of family needs and responsibilities.” (Minutes of the Sixty-First Meeting of the Advisory Committee to the Status of Women Officer, Tues Oct 22, 1991: 2) The FCO opened its doors to serve the University community in December 1993. 

Family-Friendly: What it looks like, how it is experienced and the Deepening Divide 

In this section, I consider the evidence of ‘family-friendly’ at the University and how it is portrayed through documents, services, initiatives and marketing material. I then examine governance structures and policies that pertain to students and those that pertain to staff and faculty to show the gaps that are apparent in ‘family-friendly’ initiatives. Finally, I demonstrate the disconnect between the University’s family-friendly intentions and the experiences of the student-parents.  

  1. Family-Friendly and the University now: Evidence, Documents and Declared Intentions

The FCO in partnership with the Uuniversity has produced several documents and material that serve to boost the Uuniversity’s branding of ‘inclusivity, diversity and equity.’ Documents have a vehicular capacity to extend information, provide the ‘proof’ of initiatives and commitments and therefore harness believability. As such, the term ‘family-friendly’ can be used as a description that works to generate perception. Through my research, I found that documents can take on their own life form and are generative of other documents. To refer back to Ahmed’s (2007) assertion that the work of documents often creates more documents, there was an extensive paper-trail of ‘family-friendly’ initiatives at the University. The FCO has also spearheaded several ‘family-friendly’ services. Documents provide the paper-trail of evidence into ‘family-friendly’ initiatives, however the FCO has also spearheaded several ‘family-friendly’ services. The university has published its future-looking strategy, Four Corners, that sheds light on how it plans to utilize ‘family-friendly’ initiatives for its future gains. Through discussing this culmination of ‘family-friendly’ evidence, I demonstrate how this has become a part of the university’s commitment.  

Surveying St George campus, one can notice the diaper change stations and breast-feeding rooms which are also represented in a family-friendly map of campus. Several buildings have posters of the services offered by the FCO, there are two daycare centres, a family study space at Robarts library and special kids’ programs, Junior Blues, offered at the Athletic Centre. Additionally, there are two buildings for student family housing on Charles Street West, where there is also a drop-in centre, an outdoor terrace area where children can play in the warmer months, playgrounds for children of different ages and family support offices.

In the Koeffler Centre sits the FCO with the motto ‘Every Family Belongs.’ There is a common area for family drop-ins that is stacked with toys, numerous resources on parenting as well as DVDs that can be borrowed. There are comfortable couches and a computer station, all of which are visual representations of the ideal work-life balance, or temporal synchronicity (Rosa 2013). I was directed to a report that was commissioned by the FCO and compiled by the Innovation Hub titled ‘Understanding the Experience of Student Parents at the University of Toronto’, published online in April 2019. The themes captured in this report were ‘Finding Belonging,’ ‘Navigating Systems,’ ‘Emotional Pressure,’ and ‘Practical Needs,’ all of which were underscored by time and financial constraints as well as the ability to find appropriate childcare.

Student-parent interlocutors described how they worked to balance the potential future gains with present-time strategies. Student-parents are masters of acting in contesting temporalities, however, their rhythms don’t always align with the temporality of academic time, which at times can demand extreme attentiveness to the present. As one of my student-parent interviewees, Tony, stated, ‘it’s not a theoretical exercise for me. I have kids. It’s crazy and my job is to juggle.

To understand the mandate of the FCO, I will turn to its website. In the he following statement comes from the ‘About Us’ section, webpage under the FCO (online) where the office specifies ‘Who we serve’ in the mission statement. “The Family Care Office supports current University of Toronto students, staff, faculty, post-doctoral fellows and their families with any family care related issue. The FCO has always emphasized an inclusive definition of family.” This can be attributed to a speech act where the University is able to make claims about itself and describe itself as inclusive and ‘family-friendly.’ (Ahmed 2006; 2012) These statements are convincing and are written in such a way that it becomes difficult to refute their commitments (ibid 2012; Strathern 2006). After all, why would anyone doubt the University’s commitment when it stipulates that it is committed. 

Early on in my ethnography, I went to the FCO and interviewed Louise, one of the employees and a devoted practitioner. Having familiarized myself with the Innovation Hub Report, I wanted to know about the work the FCO was engaging in to address student-parents. 

We are always working on stuff. This report just articulated it. We are hopefully doing a symposium in the spring (May/June) for everyone to attend. Not just student parents. This has come right out of the report. Also, we are working on belonging/sense of community.

Louise was keen to enforce all the ‘doing’ of the FCO, how attentive they are to student needs and discuss the main concerns that bring them to the Office (including leaves, breastfeeding concerns, financial concerns, bringing children to class). Table 1 shows some of the key achievements of the FCO’s ‘doing’ over 20 years, explicitly indicating their ‘doing good’ to adhere to their ‘family-friendly’ intentions. The longer timeline of the FCO’s work was presented to me as a handout, a single-paged document bullet-pointing the noteworthy milestones. It was a snapshot of all the hard work and commitment to ‘family-friendly.’ When I queried Louise about the number of students that the FCO attends to annually and if this has increased, I was referred back to documents, to the annual reports. 

Table 1: Selected benchmarks from the FCO’s 20-year timeline of achievements

2000Employee & Family Assistance Program Introduced
2004U of T becomes a member of the Vanier Institute of the Family Leadership Circle and Canadian Work-Life Network
2005Today’s Parent Magazine selects U of T as one of the Top 10 Family-Friendly Employers in Canada (1st time)
2006U of T named a Top 100 Employer in Canada and Top Family-Friendly Employer (1st time)
2013U of T hosts the College and University Work-Life-Family Association Conference for the first international conference

After sifting through all the HR & Equity annual reports from 1996 (first available online) until 2018, I found only two years where student data was captured. All of the other years capture grouped data of all persons at the University using FCO services. In 1998, the total number of students directly using the FCO was 284 out of a total of 746 persons, a ratio of 38% (HR & Equity Annual Report 1998), and in 1999 the student number was 276 out of a total case load of 802 (HR & Equity Annual Report 1999), or 34%. The total annual caseload of the FCO has been gradually increasing from approximately 400 in 1994/1995 to over 3000 from January 2017 to June 2018. The annual reports specify the increasing numbers from year to year and discuss the number of workshops, conferences, seminars, webinars and initiatives that are hosted by the FCO. 

I now introduce turn to the University’s Four Corners Strategy (online) that was brought to my attention by Doug, a former undergraduate student and former student-member of the Governing Council who had the opportunity to serve on various boards within the last five years. This report helps to give a sense of the University’s overall revenue strategy and the steps it is actively taking in order to get there. Doug thought this would be useful in shedding light on how and why the University incorporates a ‘family-friendly’ image. Briefly, 87% of the University’s income is from student fees and government operating grants. Only 13% comes from ‘other income’, including investment income, endowment revenue and the indirect costs of research. This report articulates the objective of growing the investment income by growing the portfolio of affordable, attainable housing, which explicitly states the need to recognize that families are a part of this. Although there is a mention of students, staff and faculty, the ‘marketing’ reads as follows: “The University can offer these benefits to aid the efforts of deans and chairs in faculty attraction and retention.” (Four Corner Strategy 2018-2019) Looking to the future and understanding the strategies for growing the University’s revenue confirms how the policies of today are unfolding to meet future demands. The marketing in the Four Corners Strategy stipulates why ‘family-friendly’ initiatives are important and how they support the University’s priorities.   

The data and statistics used in the Annual Reports speak to the auditable culture around bureaucratization and documenting, the tick-boxes that can be audited and work to reinforce the University’s commitments to ‘family-friendly,’ where even “personnel can become good at audit by producing auditable documents.” (Ahmed 2012: 116) The data is presented in such a way that it ‘refers back’ to previous years to showcase the increase in numbers and how well the FCO is doing in family care. “Benchmarking works by generating documents that refer back to the benchmarks” (ibid) and thus produces a paper trail of documents around these terms, hence the uptake in annual caseloads. Writing these documents has allowed the University to claim that “Equity, diversity and inclusion are embedded in everything we do,” (HR & Equity Annual Report 2017) because of how the data can systematically adhere to the ‘tick-box’ approach. This claim, however, is a ‘speech act’ that works to conceal the inequalities that actually exist. As such, the document becomes a substitute for acting because it works to block and conceal the uneven distribution of ‘family-friendly’ policies and services and in some cases, the ‘anti-family-friendly’ tactics that remain pervasive at the University. 

Recall the rise of family care through crisis time. After the time of l’École Polytechnique, I did not encounter any further ‘family-aversion’ tactics in documents. Instead, I found the tone and wording in documents changed to accept the student-parent and foster institutional belonging. More contemporary documents employ words like ‘equity,’ ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ (HR & Equity annual reports) to underscore the University’s commitment to ‘family-friendly.’ Then we have the Four Corners Strategy, a future-looking, revenue-generating proposed initiative that showcases U of T as a ‘family-friendly’ institution. 

  1. Evincing the Gaps: Governance, Policy, The Student-Parent and Deepening the Divide

Now come the gaps. By overviewing the governance and reporting structures, policies, the TA agreement and leaves at the University, I will show the gaps that exist in translating ‘family-friendly’ initiatives to students. 

Doug provided insight into the workings of governance and policies at the University. I learnt of the “weird splits” that are apparent in reporting and responsibility, for instance, Student Family Housing reports to SARG (Service Ancillaries Review Group) which is part of the University Affairs Board, that covers aspects of student life. The Family Care Office, on the other hand, reports to the Department of HR Equity and the Business Board, which is directed towards staff. The University’s governance and reporting structures evince the very gaps that exist in family-friendly, especially the student versus staff/faculty divide. I was curious as to how ‘family-friendly’ is addressed at the governing level. Doug explained the following:  

To be honest, it [family-friendly] doesn’t come up in the meetings I have seen. University affairs board may have some info. But often services they focus on are majority non-parent students. Way more undergrad students are non-parents. In the University context…the kind of initiatives that get brought up are attracting people they care about the most. Usually articulated… like they do enforce commitment to civic responsibility…. They want to pre-empt fights with the city, relationships with neighbourhoods around them.

Doug’s statement points to the University wanting to ‘look good’ and ‘avoid fights’ by enforcing its ‘commitment to civic responsibility.’ The commitments work to support the University’s image of itself and the image they want to portray. As Ahmed (2012) indicates, commitments and mission statements are often more about image management. I then asked Doug to explain what he meant by ‘the people they care about the most.’ 

…[the] talented, international grad students and talented professors. People who are themselves directed to research strength and international reputation. At business board they talked a lot about funding for international grad students. They are an investment for the university. Unlike undergrad students who pay a tonne of fees. 

Doug affirmed that the University’s main goal is to attract and retain top graduate researchers and faculty, and ‘family-friendly’ initiatives comes up as a recruitment tactic particularly around family housing. This acts as a way for the University to remain competitive and incentivize the top research and faculty candidates to consider U of T. Here ‘family-friendly’ works as a pull factor in the attraction and retention of the crème de la crème of the academic world.

Examining the Teaching Assistantship Agreement (CUPE 3902, unit 1) highlights more of the gaps in University policies that challenge the idea of ‘family-friendly being everywhere’. In the Collective Agreement that governs the student TA, there are pregnancy and parental/adoption leaves, but no stipulations are in effect that address child-care needs beyond the child’s first year. Every student-parent TA is granted the same amount of sick days as other student TAs and the same amount of bereavement and compassionate leave. Maggie, a graduate student-parent in the Arts & Sciences, spoke to me about the lack of accommodation with family and kids for TAs, particularly when needing to commute to other campuses: “The shittiest thing was that I kept getting UTSC TAships when my son was under 1 year old!” 

Tony shared his experience of applying for TA positions: 

I went through 7 rounds of emergency TA postings and I wasn’t getting anything. Aside from being a blow to the ego, maybe my arrogance speaking, but I’ve done a lot of teaching for 20 years and have won awards… so I know my CV is good enough to get TA positions so what is happening here?… the main thing is with family is at beginning of semester you organize your schedule with partner, but because I wasn’t getting TA postings, I was expected to apply for emergency postings, which would alter my schedule overnight…I can’t suddenly go home one day and tell my partner that tomorrow I have to teach a class in Scarborough so I can’t look after the kids… I got in shit for not applying for certain rounds… I was told part of funding package means I have to apply…I don’t want to whine…But the whole hiring process for TAs is really frustrating…. You are obliged to apply for TA positions, by virtue of the funding package, and that can come in at the last minute. 

Tony further expressed his frustration at “Union rules, department rules, HR rules” taking precedence. I proceeded to ask him if he consulted the FCO for guidance in this matter, to which he responded, “Union rules ensure fairness and lack of bias but there is an unintended consequence that FCO is aware of but are powerless about. Rules about equity and hiring outweigh individual frustrations of having schedules disturbed.” Although the TA issue has been communicated to the FCO, they lack the authority to change the union rules. When I questioned my student-parent interviewees about the efficacy and effectiveness of the FCO, Maggie stated, “I don’t understand how they help in any way. They have the general stuff that you can find anywhere. I didn’t see the connection. I don’t see what they are offering that is not already available.” These statements enforce the lack of accommodation and attention to the student-parent. Tony’s comment about the structural/institutional level is informative about our governance structures, policies and union rules, in that they do not resonate inclusivity for the student-parent. 

Turning to staff and faculty benefits for a moment, Doug confirmed the gaps in family-friendly policies in that they are not universal to the University community. 

U of T is really big and has over 20 different unions… contains a multitude of organizations… there is a lot of glossing over the complications… well generally we offer mat leave top up but lots of cases where this isn’t true like sessionals and international students…in general UofT employees have top ups but many don’t…University showcases largest groups of employees and the ones that fit into this… ‘family friendly policies may vary by position’ but this variance is huge!… Faculty get more top-up… as they are the university’s prerogative. Faculty also gets a small amount of daycare reimbursement. Some of the family-friendly initiatives are true but also U of T is huge so it can be captured according to certain departments, faculties.

Another graduate student-parent, Carrie, lives in the student-family housing on Charles Street and spoke of the disconnect between the University’s family-friendly image and her experience of planning a move to Toronto upon acceptance into a graduate program. Note that the FCO provides faculty relocation services, that help faculty and their families adjust to a new city and provide supportive services, yet these services do not exist for students with families.

My mom helped me find the information on student family housing. I had no idea. I was getting ready to take out loans to be able to live around here. She just stumbled on the information and I applied…I don’t think the student family housing is very well publicized… like they have a website and everything, but this information should probably be in our acceptance letter…especially for grad students…many of us have families.

Carrie’s comment above also speaks to a ‘code of knowing’ when it comes to ‘family-friendly’ services. Although the FCO was keen to reiterate its ‘doing’ to me, some of my interviewees were unaware of the diaper-change stations or breast-feeding areas, for example. Others had negative experiences with the FCO and opted to use their research supervisors for help and guidance in addressing parental concerns. I did not get the impression from any of my student-parent interviews that they were not aware that this after all is an academic institution first. Tony even stated to me that he understands that the majority of the student body is non-student-parent and that it would not be fair to anyone to have to put up with a screaming baby in class. The issues arise when student-parents do not experience the University’s reach of family-friendly being extended to them. Additionally, practical parenting concerns and how they impact students seem to be overlooked, as in Katie’s comment, “And they say it’s a family-friendly university! No one talks about what we need to do to accommodate having babies, going on the field. It seems like these things happen behind closed doors.” Katie told me that she wished there was a handbook on conducting research while having a family. 

Another significant oversight in policy is evident in the non-existence of accommodation when a student goes on maternity leave. The policies around maternity leave are written to sound supportive, cuddly and comforting, but the reality for students is that taking maternity leave means becoming de-registered from the student status. It is this status that grants students the benefits and accommodations. Take Maggie, for example: “(The) health clinic kicked me out when I was on maternity leave. If you are not a registered student you are not allowed to use the health clinic, and on maternity leave you are non-registered.” Since Maggie is an international student, this means that the services that she can access in Ontario are conditional upon her ‘student’ status. Foregoing her ‘student’ status meant that she could not freely access healthcare in Ontario for the duration of her maternity leave.

The administrative systems are also particularly challenging for students as there is a lack of coordination. The onus of attending to academic needs still falls to the student-parent where they are forced to navigate “complex administrative systems so they can access services.” (Innovation Hub Report, April 2019) The services may exist, but the question becomes one of ease of access, and given the obvious time-constraints for student-parents, learning to manage these systems is difficult. 

Returning to my interview with the FCO and the planned symposium, there is a fundamental issue with this: the timing of the planned symposium is set to take place when many students, faculty and staff are not present to attend, calling into question the objective of fostering a sense of belonging and community. Further, it is interesting to see how work is generated out of the document, particularly a report that was commissioned by the FCO to capture the experience of the student-parent. The fact that the FCO is working on belonging/sense of community is a commitment that “functions as a supporting device… the statement of commitment does not commit the institution to anything, but it allows the practitioner to support their claims for or against specific action,” (Ahmed 2012: 113) and in this case the action is the planned symposium. Furthermore, stipulating belonging suggests that the student-parent actually does not belong since there is ample attention paid to fostering belonging. In depicting inclusivity at the institution, Ahmed (2012: 43) states that non-white people are treated as the exception or “temporary residents in someone else’s home.” I would argue that the same is true for the student-parent, sticking out against the typical student body of academia. It is almost as though if the student-parent is to belong at the University, they must ‘buy in’ to the University’s services and initiatives around family care. 

Considering the FCO, its development came out of policies geared towards achieving women’s equality in the workplace, which is specific to staff and faculty, and is enforced in its reporting and governance structure. Looking to the future and the Four Corners Strategy, we can get an idea of how the FCO fits into the University’s broader goals by working to support the families. From its onset, the FCO was created to attend to the needs of employee wellness and to support inclusivity for all the University employees. It extends its services to students; however, its fundamental structure is tailored to staff and faculty. Its foundation was not premised on accommodating the student-parent, but staff and faculty first and foremost. This has limited the FCO’s capacity to attend to the needs of student-parents, and although its branding encompasses all university families, it is somewhat crippled by its own structure and filling the needs of the University at large. This is nonetheless not obvious in documents, initiatives, speech acts and marketing materials at the University. Consider the following statement: “Since 1993, the Family Care Office has provided students, staff and faculty with advising, resources and workshops on parenting, childcare and eldercare.” (HR & Equity Annual Report, 2017-2018) The mention of ‘students’ presented first in the University community can lead one to believe that students’ needs are prioritized by the University and that the University is committed to its students. However, the FCO was designed to cater to staff and faculty and student-parents are not convinced by their so-called inclusivity, as Carrie addresses below.

Carrie pointed out that there are different layers to what it means for an institution to be ‘family-friendly,’ ranging from family-acceptable to family-tolerant but the very structures in place fail to meet the criteria of what one may consider ‘family-friendly.’ 

…the university will hold up student-parents like look, look at our PhD candidate who is a mother of 4 and hold it up. They will put it on posters advertised globally. Like the indigenous single mother is a poster-woman for this but what is the reality? You are not selling an accurate, holistic story.

Carrie’s statement calls out the lip-service to ‘family-friendly’ as she is not believing what the University is selling. For all the documenting on best ‘family-friendly’ practices, the tactics and services are not as visible as one may suspect. In paying ‘lip-service,’ the description of the University being ‘family-friendly’ becomes an idea that is circulated, repeated and then believed by the public. ‘Family-friendly’ starts to appear and seem evident everywhere by virtue of the ‘circulating system’ when in fact it is far from everywhere. Using family-friendly “as an official description can be a way of maintaining rather than transforming existing organizational values.” (Ahmed, 2012: 57; italics in original) The University’s claim that ‘Diversity and Inclusion is imbedded in everything we do’ was written alongside the new family study space that opened in Robarts library in March 2018, flowered with other language to showcase the commitment to ‘family-friendly,’ that the University is ‘doing good’ in attending to students and can therefore take pride in the accomplishments.

The new study space at Robarts, the countless brochures of the FCO that sit in many administrative offices, the FCO’s posters advertising seminars and family services that are splashed in buildings across campus, the breast feeding rooms, the diaper change stations, the family leave policies, the endless trail of documents and UofT’s branding material highlighting ‘family-friendly’ initiatives collectively frame the institution as a ‘family-friendly’ place. All of these mechanisms, I argue, can even be deemed symbolic representations of a document, that they work to make claims and describe the University as the ‘family-friendly’ institution that U of T wants to believe that it is. Even the FCO can be attributed to an extension of the document because of its ability to show practices of ‘good-doing’ in family care, generate more attentiveness towards ‘family-friendly’, pay ‘lip-service’ to ‘family-friendly’ by working to change the perception of anti-family-friendly rather than changing the anti-family-friendly nature of the University. Together with the University, the FCO expresses ‘family-friendly’ commitments in its documents, services and initiatives that “create fantasy images” (Ahmed 2007: 607) of family care at U of T. 

There is power in perception. As we have seen, it can be marketed, it works to attract and retain the ‘top academic talent,’ it wins awards and it generates a fantasy image. In reality, it pays lip-service to ‘family-friendly’ because it is not in fact all inclusive. The FCO, from its beginnings, was designed to cater to the needs of university employees, not its students. For several student-parents, ‘family-friendly’ is an illusion and a deception, a term whose meaning has been emptied from students failing to experience this. This should be a key concern for the FCO and the University moving forward.   

Bridging the Gap: Conclusion and Recommendations

The evidence of ‘family-friendly’ across campus, the cuddly branding images of the FCO, the allocated family spaces and policies around family accommodation do not translate to how student-parents feel about family care. Like a ‘speech act’ (Ahmed 2006; 2012), family-friendly does more to support the University’s self-perception, position, future-looking strategy and employees than it does to attend to the needs of student parents.

For the FCO and the University, ‘family-friendly’ has become a concept that can be articulated, documented and then appear as a tick-box in the University’s ‘good doing’. These components help to ‘show’ that the University is doing good, that it cares, that it is committed to family care, but the document alone does not expose the reality. Instead, it works to subvert the reality of ‘family-friendly’ initiatives at U of T. This is precisely the cunning work of the document and branding that works to disguise that lack of inclusivity. As such, these materials become a form of institutional performance: “They are ways in which universities perform an image of themselves… but they are also ways in which universities perform in the sense of ‘doing well.’” (Ahmed 2012: 114) We cannot afford to forget the context in which the FCO emerged. Although crisis time generated its own plethora of documents, it also permitted action towards combatting violence against women, which also meant greater attention was paid to women’s equality and addressing childcare needs. Crisis time gave ‘family-friendly’ policies the jumpstart they needed to be embraced by the University. However, it should not take a crisis to start attending to these pervasive gaps in family care. Hearing from student-parents elucidated the structural and systemic fractures that are apparent in the institution. The services do not accommodate student-parents if there is such a disconnect between policy and practice, child-care needs and TA hiring, maternity leaves and accessing U of T systems and frankly, the FCO’s inability to intervene on behalf of a student-parent. 

I depart from Ahmed (2012) in that I do not believe the University needs a complete structural overhaul to ensure family-friendly policies extend to students. Instead, I advocate for a review of the administrative structures to simplify the processes and make them more conducive to being used and managed by the student-parent, whether on leave or whether they need to access certain services. Second, the University needs to resolve the issue of student maternity leave and access to benefits as this particularly disadvantages the international student. Finally, the resources used to design family-friendly spaces at the University would be far more impactful being implemented towards childcare subsidies for student-parents. Although the aspect of belonging and inclusion is important, it is not fair to expect that the student-parent can perpetually juggle the multiple temporalities of childcare and academic time. This will only create more stress, dilute the student focus and go against the hard-fought battle for equality and family care services at U of T, where there was a call for the University to be able to ensure the success of all its students. 


Ahmed, Sara. 2006. ‘The Nonperformativity of Antiracism,’ Meridians 7(1): 104-126. [Accessed October 3, 2019]

Ahmed, Sara. July 2007. ‘”You end up doing the document rather than doing the doing”: Diversity, race equality and the politics of documentation,’ Ethnic and Racial Studies 30 (4): 590-609.

Ahmed, Sara. 2012. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Innovation Hub. April 2019. Understanding the Experience of Student Parents at the University of Toronto, Themes and Insights: Design Thinking Summary. A report prepared for the Family Care Office, University of Toronto. Available online:           

Minutes of the Sixty-First Meeting of the Advisory Committee to the Status of Women Officer. (1991, October 22) Folder of Advisory Committee to the Status of Women Officer Part VII. Status of Women Office. (A97-0005-006, B1:01.04.02). University of Toronto Archives, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

Nielsen, Grit B. and Laura L. Sarauw. 2018. ‘Tuning Up and Tuning In.’ In Death Of The Public University? Uncertain Futures for Higher Education in the Knowledge Economy, edited by S. Wright and C. Shore. New York: Berghan. 

Report on the status of non-academic women. (1975 March 21). Supplement, UofT Bulletin. Librarian’s Association of the UofT, Status of Women 1972-1975. (B2014-0017, Box 1004, File 20) University of Toronto Archives, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Riles, Annelise (ed.). (2006). “Introduction: In Response,” in Documents: Artifacts of Modern Knowledge, pp. 1-38. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. 

Rosa, Hartmut. 2013 [2005]. Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. Translated by J. Trejo-Mathys. New York: Columbia University Press. 

Strathern, Marilyn. (2006). “Bullet-Proofing: A Tale from the United Kingdom,” in Riles, Annelise (ed.) Documents: Artifacts of Modern Knowledge, pp. 181-205. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

The Bulletin. (1990, January 8). Status of Women Office. (A97-0005-001, B1:01.04.01). University of Toronto Archives, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

The Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3902, Unit 1 (available online): 

  1. Collective Agreement: CUPE 3902, Unit 1 — May 1, 2014 to December 31, 2017 (PDF, 1 MB)
  2. Memorandum of Agreement: CUPE 3902, Unit 1 — January 1, 2018 to December 31, 2020 (PDF, 6 MB)

The University of Toronto. ‘About us.’ Family Care Office.

The University of Toronto. HR & Equity Reports. [online].

University of Toronto’s Four Corner Strategy, 2018-2019. Available online:

The Varsity 

The Women’s Audit. (1990, Spring). Status of Women Office. (A97-0005-003). University of Toronto Archives, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

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