Letter: Preserving and expanding the UMCDC serves the University’s mission

Letter to the Editor

On Jan. 22, the Dean of the College of Education and Human Development announced the closure of the University of Minnesota Child Development Center. A month later, in response to research demonstrating the center’s value to the University, President Eric Kaler postponed the closure until “an alternative, or alternatives, [are] in place.”

UMCDC is the only full-time, infant-through-preschool early childhood education and care (ECE) center on the Twin Cities campus. While UMCDC provides high-quality ECE for UMN faculty, staff and students, it also contributes directly to the University’s teaching, research and outreach missions. UMCDC provides practicum experiences to 75 percent of the early childhood education majors at UMN, thus helping to train a significant portion of the ECE workforce that serves the state. Visits to UMCDC are a regular part of courses exploring child development in the College of Liberal Arts and CEHD. At the UMN Medical School, over the past 15 years, 495 pediatricians have fulfilled part of their residency requirements at the CDC.

UMCDC, in short, is far more than simply an ECE center.

The excellence of UMCDC’s staff and educational program have long been critical in attracting and retaining top-notch faculty, staff and graduate students. Yet because the University has not invested in on-campus ECE at the level of its peers, relatively few families have been able to take advantage of it. The University suggests limited capacity as a reason to close UMCDC, but the center’s very existence has been a vital symbol of the University’s support of working families. Closing it would send the opposite signal, particularly given the fact that the Twin Cities has one of the nation’s highest rates of dual-earner couples, resulting in widespread childcare shortages in the Metro area.

While the University has also argued that UMCDC is not cost-effective, the center’s tuition revenue exceeds its operational costs. Tuition is already adjusted for family income, ranging from $445 to $750 biweekly; these brackets could be adjusted to broaden access for students while increasing overall revenue via higher-income families. Moreover, financial transfers made to UMCDC by the University should not be viewed as a subsidy. Rather, they should be viewed as an investment both in UMN’s core mission and in providing a family-friendly resource that maximizes employee productivity.

When the University has invested in it, UMCDC has demonstrated its ability to expand: at its inception in 1974, the UMCDC was housed in a West Bank warehouse, serving 75 children. Upon moving to its current site in the Como neighborhood in 1992, its capacity nearly doubled. However, no plans for further expansion have been made since then, despite the fact that UMCDC’s current location offers such possibilities. For instance, much of the parking lot sits empty, even at peak times.

Any investigation of “alternatives” should also account for the fact that UMCDC’s current building was purpose-built for the center: it is designed for all-day care, and optimizes staff costs with a layout that flexes depending on the number of children in the center. When the building was commissioned, designed and built — all under the auspices of Auxiliary Services — parents donated at least $30,000, and participated in the design process. Retaining UMCDC at its current site while expanding to other locations, such as the West Bank campus, would offer additional possibilities for partnerships and outreach with the surrounding community, and permit greater integration with research and teaching programs across campus.

For all of these reasons, the conversation sparked by the closure announcement offers an opportunity to chart a new path forward for ECE at UMN. This path should build upon, and expand, the valuable resource the UMN already has in UMCDC. UMN’s Grand Challenge topic “Enhancing Individual and Community Capacity for a Changing World” intends to foster “physical, mental and cognitive well-being from early childhood.” We believe we can do this — through greater investment in the UMCDC.

This letter was edited lightly for grammar and style.

This letter was authored by Antonella Borgatti, Barrett Colombo, Evan Roberts, on behalf of UMCDC Parents Organizing. Antonella Borgatti is an associate professor of oncology in the department of veterinary clinical sciences, Barrett Colombo is the manager for education and policy at the Institute on the Environment and Evan Roberts is an assistant professor of sociology and population studies in the College of Liberal Arts.