Last fall, five University of Maryland students set out to bring free period products to the campus. By December, they were one step closer to that goal.
They’d just won the top prize at the university’s annual Do Good Now Course Competition for their proposal to bring free pad and tampon dispensers to high-traffic bathrooms around the campus — a project originally started to meet the requirements of a public policy class they took that semester.
And the previous month, the Student Facilities Fund had approved the group’s request for $18,000 to install and stock 15 dispensers around the campus. The coalition, dubbed “Get Ovary It,” said it had even received assurance from a maintenance official that his department would support the project, so long as the group secured funding.
The students — Lauren Anikis, Hailey Chaikin, Hope Kahn, Claire Mudd and Zoe Weisberg — were energized. The approval would mean the end of empty metal tins in campus bathrooms and relief from the inflated prices of menstrual products at on-campus convenience stores.
They thought the hard part was over.
But after 10 months and the graduation of two of its members, the group is still a long ways away from realizing its mission. After being recognized by the university and lauded for its initiative, the group found out the school’s Facilities Council — a branch of its facilities planning department, overseen by Provost Mary Ann Rankin — had blocked funding for the project.
In a statement, a university spokesperson wrote that the university has established methods of providing students with menstrual products. Students can access free products in Stamp Student Union and the University Health Center, and there are coin-operated dispensers at Eppley Recreation Center, Ritchie Coliseum and the Golf Course Clubhouse, according to the statement.
But the students stress that the recent economic strife caused by the coronavirus has only exacerbated the burden on students who were already struggling to afford feminine care products: About 30 million Americans are now unemployed, many of them students.
“Periods don’t stop during a pandemic,” said Weisberg, a sophomore marketing major.
Over the last year, the group hasn’t been fighting alone. More than 600 people signed a petition last year backing the project, and it found an advocate in Josie Shaffer, a junior government and politics major who became chair of the Student Facilities Fund late last year.
When the team’s proposal reached the Student Facilities Fund last year, Shaffer was intrigued. It reminded her of a time in freshman year, when she saw empty tins offering tampons and pads for 25 or 50 cents in a chemistry building bathroom. The dispensers looked like they hadn’t been touched in years, she said, something she’s noticed in most bathrooms on the campus.
Shaffer was optimistic about the project, too. She had no reason not to be — nearly every proposal the fund approves is done so unanimously, she said. And even though the Provost and the Facilities Council have the final say over whether a project will receive money from the fund, she said there was nothing to suggest that they would refuse a project that their student counterparts had so forcefully approved.
The fund, which is supported by a mandatory $18 fee from undergraduate and graduate students, had over $3.4 million to spend on projects last year.
But in January, just after she returned to the campus after winter break, Shaffer received an email from a member of the facilities planning department. When she spoke with staff from the department a short time later, she said, she was told the council had not followed through on a planned December meeting to evaluate the approved proposals.
And they wanted to talk about Get Ovary It in particular. Some members on the council told her it was worried about finding “sustaining funds” for the project, Shaffer said.
They worried that if the dispensers weren’t successful in their first year, it would be hard to find enough money to cover the project in the following years, she said. And they told her if they couldn’t find that money, the university would receive pushback for suddenly taking away that resource, she said.
Shaffer was dismayed but not defeated: The department had given her a counteroffer after finding a new contractor that could provide menstrual products in 15 bathrooms for $15,000 over three years, a much cheaper alternative to the initial proposal.
A “wild goose chase” to find funding for the dispensers elsewhere then began, Shaffer said. She began reaching out to various university offices — the division of student affairs, the division of academic affairs and facilities management — to see if they could somehow split the cost of sustaining funds for the dispensers.
Around March, Shaffer met with a representative from the division of student affairs. At that meeting, an assistant to Patty Perillo, student affairs vice president, offered to fund the entire proposal, Shaffer said. But in an email a month later, the office went back on its word: The division supported the initiative, the representative wrote, but it didn’t fall within the purview of the office and they were trying to cut back on non-essential spending.
Then, Shaffer said, she found out that finding lasting funding wasn’t the sole concern of the council after all.
Just before the council was set to vote on the fund’s proposals, she reached out to Tom McMullen, a special assistant to Rankin for facilities, to once again plead her case for funding Get Ovary It.
In an email, McMullen wrote that Rankin “is not certain the SFF should have this as a top priority,” and that she did not agree to help with funding. He did not explain why Rankin felt that way.
The council voted down the proposal in April, while approving each of the three other proposals the fund sent over: a renovation of a Muslim prayer space in Cole Field House, a campuswide lighting improvement project and the installation of hammock posts in the Cambridge Community Quad.
“For [Get Ovary It’s proposal] to have a unanimous vote, and then get struck down, was kind of hard to hear,” Shaffer said.
The provost’s office suggested one last avenue for funding, Shaffer said: the university’s Facilities Management. By that time, the coronavirus pandemic had closed down the campus and left the administration scrambling to decide whether to invite students back after an extended spring break.
It wasn’t until June that Shaffer met with Charles Reuning, head of Facilities Management, and Harry Teabout, head of building and landscape maintenance, via video call. McMullen also attended.
It started like all her other meetings with administrators had, Shaffer said, and ended the same way. Reuning and Teabout praised the initiative before explaining they didn’t have the authority to fund it, she said.
And then, she said, she got another referral from the provost’s office: Why don’t you speak to university President Darryll Pines?
“I was like, ‘What?’” Shaffer recalled. “If I go to President Pines … he’ll be like ‘Yeah, let’s get Facilities Management to fund it,’ and then three months later, I’m in the same meeting with the same people.”
“I feel like I’ve been running around, looking for these funds, and I feel like everyone has different parts of information that I don’t,” she said.
The students behind Get Ovary It received word over the summer that the council would not be funding their proposal. The sudden turn of events frustrated them.
They understood the university’s finances had taken a hit during the pandemic, but they also felt the administration’s refusal to fund the dispensers spoke to an even greater challenge.
“A big roadblock for getting menstrual products on campus is the fact that it doesn’t affect everybody,” said Chaikin, a junior communication major. “And I think when people think, ‘That doesn’t affect me, why should I pay for that? Why should I put in this effort to get that passed?’… They’re a lot less likely to support it.”
And of the administrators the group spoke with to try to secure funding for the dispensers, Shaffer said, none were people who menstruate.
Still, since the project’s founding last fall, other students have launched similar initiatives to bring free period products to the campus. In December, resident assistants in Hagerstown Hall stocked every bathroom in the dorm with free products, and launched a petition calling for their “Period Poverty” program to be expanded to every dorm.
The petition attracted more than 450 signatures in two weeks.
Even if the university agreed to take action on period poverty, it would be far from the first to do so.
Several colleges across the U.S. have begun supplying free products to their students in recent years, including the University of Washington, the University of Minnesota and Purdue University. Even more schools have student groups similar to Get Ovary It, pressuring administrators to provide pads and tampons in bathrooms around their campuses.
And despite months of hurdles, Shaffer and the students of Get Ovary It have not given up on their goal.
Shaffer hopes to meet with Pines in the coming weeks to inform the president about her efforts and make one final push at putting free products in university bathrooms. She plans on bringing a list of other Big 10 universities that provide such services, she said.
Meanwhile, Get Ovary It has merged with the student organization formerly known as PERIOD. to raise awareness of their efforts and collect pad and tampon donations for the greater Prince George’s County community. With a larger base of student support, the group is hoping to gain more leverage in making their proposal a reality.
In Weisberg’s view, the university’s concern for the health of all students should extend beyond the current pandemic and beyond the traditional meaning of the word.
“If you really are caring about students’ health during this time, you need to consider other aspects of health,” she said. “You need to look at mental health, you need to look at physical health … but you really have to look at menstrual health, because it matters, and it’s not ending.”
This story has been updated.