Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Ask the Administrator: Those Pesky Spouses Again...

A newly-chosen department chair writes (obfuscated for anonymity):

We have a looming problem -- a beloved colleague of (several) years is married to a guy who is not as beloved as a person, but is a perfectly serviceable academic in my field. Having gone through my own, very unpleasant, spousal hiring nightmare (my wife was hired in our dept. several years ago, now has tenure, turned out well but situation was ugly as it proceeded), I want this one to be smooth as silk. Or at least smooth as something akin to silk.

Can a department hire a spouse following something like the following procedure: advertise nationally, bypass interview process, hire spouse?

Or, must a department do something like this: advertise nationally, interview at convention, bring three candidates to campus (including spouse), hire spouse?

I shrank those scenarios down to the minimum in each case. I will confirm that I am an advocate of the first scenario, but also one who is certain he knows of cases that have proceeded as that scenario outlines.

I have other colleagues, older by a decade at least, who argue that we must do the second scenario.

I'd love to get some feedback.

There's just no elegant way around spousal (or partner) hiring. I've written before on a very prestigious university near my cc that has tried to outsource its trailing spouses to neighboring colleges (i.e. us) via an online repository of trailing partners' curriculum vitae. The idea is that we'd be so grateful for the opportunity to make their problems our own that we'll jump at the chance to ignore our own interests in favor of those of a university that otherwise wouldn't care if we burned to the ground.

It hasn't worked. Wonder of wonders, we have our own problems to deal with, thank you very much.

As a cc, we're largely spared this issue. We don't raid superstars, so we don't have to finagle spousal appointments for them. I'll have to ask readers who work at R1's and similar places how this is handled there.

Although trailing spouses exist in every profession, I don't know of any others offhand in which it's taken for granted that they deserve special consideration. My guess is that the special consideration they (sometimes) get is a perverse function of the shortage of faculty jobs. If there were plenty of jobs to go around, I'd imagine trailing spouses would be seen as blessings. The Snooty Liberal Arts College I attended, which was located about two miles west of nowhere, had a de facto policy of hiring couples, since it was the only way to get good young faculty to stay out there in the sticks. But that's the exception. In most of academia, and especially in the evergreen disciplines, there's such a labor surplus that any sort of favoritism invites litigation.

I'm not a fan of Potemkin searches. The “advertise it, but don't mean it” strategy just strikes me as cruel. If you advertise and don't bother interviewing, you're giving false hope. If you advertise and interview, but have an outcome already in mind, you're giving false hope and costing people time and money. If you don't advertise, I see “discrimination lawsuit” written all over it. Imagine: highly-qualified member of multiple protected classes doesn't get the chance to apply for a job that goes to a white male, based largely on who he's sleeping with. I think the legal term is “gulp.”

Basically, there's a mismatch between the law – which is written for individuals – and actual people, who sometimes come in pairs or groups. If we follow the law, we force horrible choices on actual people. If we bend to accommodate a few people, we do so at the cost of others who have the law on their side. If there's a more elegant way to handle this, I'd like to know.

There are also pragmatic considerations. Suppose you hire Superstar and Trailing Mediocrity. Shortly after they both get tenure, they break up, Superstar decamps for greener pastures, and you're stuck with Tenured Trailing Mediocrity. In a situation like that, Superstar is the likelier candidate to leave, since, by definition, she's the one with more options. Or suppose the marriage is fine, TM is in a different department, and gets shot down for tenure. Now the secondary department has made it likely that the first will lose its Superstar. It isn't hard to spin out any number of ugly permutations.

(In practice, it's common to see the poorly paid instructional support staff positions go to trailing spouses. At SLAC back in the 80's, I noticed that many of the older librarians shared last names with the older faculty. Now, the spouses are likelier scattered among various campus 'centers.')

I'll admit being lucky in this regard, since The Wife isn't an academic, so we're spared some of the 'two-body problem.' One free piece of advice I'll give to single grad students – make a real effort to date outside of academia. Few other fields are as economically straitened as this.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think? Have you seen a model that works?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Speaking as the Trailing spouse of the Superstar...let me just say that I don't consider myself a Mediocrity but a responsible, creative contributor in my center-on-campus position. My Superstar is kind enough to think that I am the better half at the university as well.

I think the real lesson might be: don't chase superstars. And if you do, be up front that there is no guarantee of spousal appointment. Then do the best you can to impress the superstar on your OWN merits. Maybe this isn't very practical -- I'm not an administrator, thanks be to God -- but at least it's bloody honest.
In my department, we have been granted exceptions (by the Affirmative Action office) to searches in order to do what is called a "targeted hire," and this has happened in one of two scenarios: to hire a spouse of a current faculty member (when the deans/chairs have decided the line is available) or to hire a minority faculty member who is available (and in a case when a search had not previously been contemplated--in these cases either a dean or provost has funded the hire). I have also seen spouses hired/interviewed as a result of national searches (with sometimes the search being tailored to fit the spouse's qualifications, but still done with multiple candidates coming to campus in a real search); this last approach allows people who don't like the spouse, or don't like the field, to be difficult.

I think it's important to be clear about whether you're really interested in doing a spousal hire (in which case, the question is "what does spouse do, and how can spouse fit with our department/college aims and aspirations, and what can we build in terms of programming/activities/research if we hire spouse?"). Spousal hires don't always map neatly onto existing gaps in a department--but they can be a wonderful way to hire good people who will be committed to the institution. So it can pay to think flexibly.

On the other hand, if the dept really wants to hire an expert in Particular Subfield, which may or may not be the spouse's field, then questions will arise about how much the fact of being the spouse is a qualification or a matter of fit for the position. And that can get tricky.
Even dating outside academia isn't always the cure. My partner is in a medical subspecialization. We've been together for eight years and are delaying marriage till we can get in the same town. For the past five years we've been trying to get him moved here or me moved there. Now we've bagged that idea and pretty much accepted the fact that we're both going to have to move if we want to find work in our fields.

Sometimes I wish we were both accountants, or something else with a plentiful supply of jobs wherever we decide to live.
NPR's Marketplace program aired a short segment yesterday about the problems academic couples face when doing the job search thing and some ideas schools are trying out to help them.

My husband and I met in our MA program. During our final semester and the summer break following, we started to really get, erm, hot and heavy.

Whether to try negotiating academic careers and a serious relationship is something we thought a lot about. In the end, we decided to be happy with our MAs and focus on writing, adjuncting, and tangentially higher ed jobs. I can't imagine how difficult it must be for two people to maintain a relationship and go through PhD programs--nevermind the hellish job search that would follow--while trying to remain in the same geographic area. I'm just glad that we hadn't yet begun doctoral programs, because having to consider that investment on top of everything else would have made the decision much more difficult.
I have to say that I object very strongly to the term "trailing spouse," and particularly to the use made here of "trailing mediocrity." I say this having just gone through a series of convoluted negotiations to close the distance between myself and my long-term partner. I'm no superstar, and he's no mediocrity. Instead, we've both been consistently active and committed members of the faculty at our respective institutions -- but those institutions were nearly 2000 miles apart. In order to fix a situation that was rapidly becoming untenable (a separation that had lasted well over 10 years), I went on the market this year. I was the one who went looking primarily because I'm in a field that happens to be hot right now, and because I've got a particular sideline that certain institutions would be interested in. And, in fact, I found one, and in the process, this institution indicated to me that an offer to me would include an offer to my partner (this institution wisely uses the couple hire as a faculty-stabilization measure). In the meantime, my current institution countered with an offer that was sufficiently attractive, including a position for my partner, that we decided to stay. We'd likely have done the same if his institution had been the one to counter, but his simply couldn't afford to do so. In any case, my institution is very happy to have kept me, and even happier to have gained him.

All this by way of saying that the "trailing spouse" is often only trailing by virtue of arriving later, or of being the unexpected bonus. Assuming that a partner hired under such circumstances must be mediocre is really obnoxious. This is of course not to say that such mediocrity never occurs, but I could also name for you several circumstances in which the "trailing mediocrity" turned out to be the MORE valued new hire, contributing more actively than the superstar, and more missed when the couple later moved on...
Sometimes the university makes out like a bandit with a spousal hire.

At my snooty mid-western U in the 1980s, the bidness college hired a superstar reseracher who was known for being a butthead in the classroom. He would NOT come unless his wife got a tenure track position as well.

She did, and was a BIG hit. While not a research superstar she was a good scholar and a FABULOUS classroom instructor, much beloved by students and her colleagues. The skuttlebutt was that while he brought prestige she was the better hire for the U.
As an administrator, can I just say that hiring the trailing spouse in a non-faculty position also sucks? You have all the same problems of matching the spouse's skills to the available opening. Creating a position can use available salary dollars and leave you with deadwood. When this happens in a large urban setting with plenty of industry jobs, you know you're getting saddled with a problem.
I'm curious; Anonymous 2 brings up the point that "trailing" doesn't equal "mediocre," but in this case, the trailing spouse is apparently a mediocrity in his own right, not because he's trailing. Which makes the problem sound like something beyond how to hire a spouse without getting legally shafted. That is, the way he's described, he doesn't sound like a good *collegue,* regardless of how he can contribute to the field. Is the superstar really worth the burden of putting up with someone who won't contribute to the collegiality (sp?) of the department or the university?
This is, actually, an issue that slowly rises to my own consciousness. I met my fiancee (soon to be wife) some 7 years ago, at a point where both were reasonably certain we wanted academic careers, and none of us had started said careers.

Now, I'm in a PhD program in southeast Germany, and she just finished her M.Sc. in Stockholm, and we've been living apart for the last 2 years. She'll start looking for PhD programs soon enough, and I count on stepping onto the Postdocing bandwagon in 2 or so years. At some point in the future, it would be Very Nice Indeed to live together again, but I don't really see how we can swing it before at least both have graduated. And even then it's going to be damned tricky to even end up with residence in the same country.

None of us is, alas, really prepared to go work non-academically for the sake of our relationship, which makes things even trickier.
There's no answer to this one. Creating a job--including fake advertising and a fake interview process--for a spouse, no matter whether s/he's a mediocrity or a superstar, is illegal and will expose any institution from cc to R1 to a whole shitstorm of litigation.

On the other hand, if workers, including academics, are going to be productive, they should have a reasonable expectation of living in the same time zone as their partners.
I'm glad to see one commenter accentuated the legal issue. I was struck by the fact that New Chairman had talked to senior faculty but not to the college's lawyer or its Provost concerning what is in the college's policy manual.

If New Chairman has never done a job search at that college, the first step is to find out what the S.O.P. is and stick to it.
As a single, may I just say this whole thing is sickening. I know I lost out on at least one job because of a spousal hire. Ah, if only I had the money, the time, and the concrete proof to bring that law suit.
I don't think the advice to date outside of academia is realistic in most cases. When you spend most of your time on campus, you're obviously more likely to click with someone else there. And from personal experience, guys I've dated outside of academia just didn't get my dedication to school. Now I'm married to a fellow academic and we're celebrating our recent upgrade to only living in two *adjacent* states, but hell, I wouldn't have it any other way. At least we understand the craziness of this profession and can support each other.
I haven't had a chance to digest all of these comments, but will soon. As the "New Chair" in question, I would like to clarify (elaborate?) a coupel of points.

1. Just because I didn't mention anyone but senior colleagues doesn't mean I haven't explored, discussed, etc. this with administrators at my U. The SOP does not exist. My university is growing and changing by the moment.

2. I don't like the term "trailing spouse" either.

3. I am not dealing with a superstar or a mediocrity. Just a fine colleague who is a good scholar and her husband, a good scholar who is yet to be beloved. Sorry for the confusion.

4. For the person who would file that suit, I understand your position, having been in it myself, literally. However, if there were a suit to be filed over spousal hires, it would have been filed and you wouldn't need to scrounge up the dough. This is not an unusual phenomenon, just a complicated one.

Thanks very much for all the comments --

New Chair
I don't know why that last comment came up anonymous -- it was me, New Chair.
Here at Snooty U, they do this all the time. Nobody appears to have sued yet. They don't advertise the positions. Someone talks to the dean and the president, and money appears. This is made easier by ludicrous endowments, of course.

At the small extremely rural SLAC I went to, they also hired any number of partners. They were, by and large, excellent.
The fact that schools have not been sued over hirings like this in the past is not the issue. The fact that Snooty U's billion-dollar endowment makes hires like this possible is not the issue. The fact that some spousal hires have turned out well isn't the issue, either.

Nepotism is the issue, and it's illegal and unethical. Imagine the stink if your divorced university president found a good, high-salaried job for his/her new partner.

What's even more inhumane and unethical is asking folks to spend hours and hours of their time updating their cv's, filling out long applications, getting references, and all the rest for an opening that's not really open.

Even worse is asking a few of these same folks to spend money to travel for an interview that's not really an interview.
The noble host quoth:

Although trailing spouses exist in every profession, I don't know of any others offhand in which it's taken for granted that they deserve special consideration. My guess is that the special consideration they (sometimes) get is a perverse function of the shortage of faculty jobs.

Actually, I cannot think of -that- many non-academic jobs where you can count the number of good workplaces - world wide - on your own extremities.

And that's more or less what I end up with if I survey the number of departments with people doing my own specialty, so that I would end up having colleagues locally who even understand the things I talk about.

Sure, I could - and probably will in the future - take a position where I literally will be alone for the next hour or two of travel in all directions with my understanding of my subject matter; but this potentially extreme scarcity of good opportunities probably contributes a lot to both the entitlement feelings and the help granted when it comes to spousal hirings. Even finding a university where both expertises end up being valuable is quite a task. Getting hired at a university that values both contributions will be even more difficult.
I think we're all forgetting teh most important element here: the students.

First, let me say that I empathize with the tough job situation that new PhD's and their spouses face. At my own SLAC, we just hired a fantastic new Prof, whose husband luckily had a job within an hour's drive. Such situations are far from commonplace though...

Hiring conventions (and I mean SOP, not Conventions with a big "C" here) are put in place to protect two groups of people: the students of the institution and the prospective applicants for the position (and I'm talking faculty and staff here, it all applies).

For the applicants, the hiring process ensures a degree of fairness and the opportunity for their credentials to be judged by a group of people they hope to call peers. Spousal hiring makes a mockery of this. Yeah, it's dangerous on the legal and morale fronts.

Perhaps even more in need of protection are the students of the institution. Hiring Committees are charged with ensuring that the most qualified applicants will be teaching the students (consumers) who are paying a ridiculous amount of money to sit and listen to those lectures (or, for staff, for the services on campus that they provide). Spousal hiring might work out in some cases, but it's largely unfair to the people who are in the greatest positions of dependance (the applicants and students), and places a great deal of power/choice in the hands of the people who have the most power/control to begin with (high level administrators).

Really, nothing about this practice is fair. Does any other field do this? Thank god no. If it were the case, we would have spousal hire doctors in our hospitals because their husband/wife found that great appointment and wanted to move their family. How would you like to get treated by them?
Obviously, this one strikes close to home for a lot of people.

Certainly it's true that not every trailing spouse is a mediocrity, or that no superstar has ever disappointed. But in those cases in which both partners are good enough to win in a fair fight, I assume they would. The dilemma only arises when one partner wouldn't win a position in a fair fight. In this market, even some very good people wouldn't win in a fair fight.

Second Line's objection says it well. When we start hiring people based on who they sleep with, rather than almost any other criterion, we start going places we really don't want to go.

New Chair -- I'm glad your situation isn't as stark as I had painted it. That said, I don't share your confidence that if there were a suit to be filed, it would have been filed by now. (It reminds me of the old joke about the economist who wouldn't bend down to pick up the $20 bill, because if it were really a $20 bill, someone would have picked it up by now.)

At base, I think the dilemma is rooted in laws that assume that jobs are allocated one by one, and institutions that sometimes want to hire a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. As the thoughtful comments from so many different perspectives show, there's no easy and clean answer here.
Somewhere up the list of comments there were a couple that implied or stated that only academia has this problem (nepotism, put bluntly but accurately). I do not believe that this is true at all. And, for the anonymous voice that wondered what the reaction would be to the president hiring his new girlfriend, I would say from experience that it would not be negative if the girlfriend were qualified. It happens all the time (at my university three times in the past year [administrators, not presidents]) and evokes very little surprise anymore around here, because the hires were qualified.

Another side remark I would make is that I have been involved in about seven hires in my department of sixteen in the past eight years, and in each case, the number of people who were qualified and could compete for the job was large (dozen? two dozen? depends on the search); the decision often came down to qualities that did not have a lot to do with their scholarly merits. Or their likely merits in the classroom. The person in question here would be among that dozen or so.

For the person who noted that the students matter most: in my institution's case, that is precisely right. In others, I doubt it.

Finally, we are not talking about giving some bozo a job just because he is married to a valued scholar. Our department would not pursue this at all if he did not meet (likely exceed) our collective standards. That discussion would happen (has happened for the most part) long before we figure out the process. For people who are concerned that this will reduce the number of available positions, I don't see it that way at all. This person would get one of the jobs in his field somewhere; if he gets ours, that frees one up elsewhere.

Thanks for the comments; I'm now more confused than ever!

Oops, one more thing: I like the joke, but I'm not necessarily convinced...
I'm not going to weigh in with an opinion on the spousal hiring, evil or not, question, because while I see the point that it is nepotism and perhaps unfair to other applicants, I WOULD like a job one day, and can't see how I'm likely to end up with one in the same place as my husband.

What I DO want to respond to is Dean Dad's statement that: "in those cases in which both partners are good enough to win in a fair fight, I assume they would. The dilemma only arises when one partner wouldn't win a position in a fair fight."

I don't think this is true. Often there is no fair fight to win in. If one spouse gets a job and the dept the other one would like to work for has no current openings, there is no fight to be fought. The best (s)he can hope for is that funds are found to "create" some sort of position for him/her. It seems to me that that is a far more common situation than one in which there happen to be openings in both departments and the "trailing spouse" is applying under normal hiring procedures.
Having grown up in a state that played a prominent role in the Underground Railroad but still suffered from defacto segregation, and having worked in one where the DOJ still plays an active role in being sure that "formerly de jure" does not become "defacto", I can't imagine a university or CC without uniform hiring procedures.

For New Chair, the risk can be personal as well as institutional. You can be sued, not just the (private?) college. If there has been even a modicum on consistency in the seven searches you were involved in, write it down, make it department policy, and get it approved by your Dean.

Although "not a Bozo" has to be real high on the selection criteria, it is not the only one. Only an honest search will tell you if the college as a whole will grow best with one person rather than another.
This looks a lot like nepotism to me, and although from New Dean's comments it sounds like that is accepted at their institution that doesn't make it right.

If the decision to hire the spouse has been made (and it certainly sounds like it has) then any advertising etc would be false, which is not only not ethical but illegal. (Probably not provably illegal from the sound of things, which does reduce the chance of lawsuits.)

My own position would be to hire the best candidate, with some impartial person deciding on who is best. Doesn't sound like that will happen, though.
As someone who has lost more than one job to a spousal hire, I think this discussion has gotten off-topic. Frankly, I feel scenario 2 (national ad, conference interview, campus visits) is unethical. I really resent having, more than once, cancelled classes and spent two days travelling for a job I would have given my eyeteeth for, only to find out later that, while the dept thought I was great, they had always intended to do the spousal hire. The market is hard enough, and so is the rejection, without having to go through a bogus search!
Thankfully now employed
As a more than likely spousal hire, the argument in favor of hiring a spouse is similar to the arguments in favor of affirmative action.

1) Nobody has a right to a job. Nobody "deserves" ANY job. Those of you who feel you "lost" a job to a spousal hire didn't -- you could have not been chosen in favor of any of the other finalists.

2) If nobody has a right to a job, then the process of selection of candidates can take many factors into account. Most often there is an issue of "fit" (whatever that means), there could be diversity goals etc. Hiring a spouse should come into that category. Institutions have an interest in stability, spouses on campus insures that kind of stability.
Yes, but lying to someone and telling them they have a chance at a job is still lying to someone.

Anyways, wouldn't a more elegant solution be for the college to offer six months' salary as a relocation package? Seems cheaper in the long run, too.
Can't say I agree with Philosophy Factory. I never lost a job to a spousal hire, so I have no personal sour grapes. But still, nobody "deserves" a job because they are married to a superstar, either. No department "deserves" to have a spouse pushed into it by another department this other department wants a superstar. And spouses on campus resulting in stability? Something like 50% of marriages fail, therefore, in 50% of cases, there will be some nasty breakup and as someone else pointed out, superstar leaves and then the university is stuck with, well, you. And I don't know you - you may be great. But you may not. One of those who was not hired might have been far more ideal. But the spousal divorce nightmare has happened at every university I've been at. And it gets dirty.

Affirmative action is to level the playing field so that underrepresented minorities can have an advantage to make up for years of discrimination. Spouses are not a protected or discriminated against class. They just happen to be sleeping with someone. People do not choose to be black or hispanic or female but you said yes when your spouse popped the question. You made your bed - I don't see why a department at some university has to sleep in it. So I don't quite agree with your affirmative action claim.
I agree that spousal hire isn't necessarily en par with affirmative action or discrimination arguments. But one feeling I get strongly from the vocal opponents in here is that of basically "sucks to be you".

If I happen to have married a computer programmer, or an accountant, or a lawyer/doctor/nurse/whatever there will most likely be a job of decent quality in the vicinity of a university suited for me. However, if I happen to have been stupid enough to marry someone with an academic career in mind (and please, let's face it, this is a pretty darn common situation... Brains are sexy :) then we're faced with not only one, but two persons in the relationship with careers to tend to that have extremely sparse workspace distributions. As I said earlier, finding a university with a workgroup close enough to my own interests that I actually can talk to my colleagues and they understand what I'm talking about gives me some 20-odd universities worldwide.

Almost no other field has that sparse distributions.

My spouse will most likely be in a similar situation - so we have two sets of 20-odd universities, which may or may not overlap at all, where placement would be ideal for both. Simply won't happen.

But still, in order to downgrade our expectations enough that we can even work within commuting distance from each other in all probability means that at least one of us will end up with a job where we have close to no thematic research support from our workgroups.

It is a bloody awful problem. And any solution proposed will be unfair to some people somewhere. But categorically telling every academic who happens to love another academic that it's our own fault for falling in love with each other, and leaving us to fend for ourselves feels kinda insulting, and the most likely results I see from it is that in highest probability the female spouse'll drop out of academia (a bloody shame!) and in the worst case, the marriage will wreck from the stress of having the pest-or-cholera choice of either abandoning a career you love or a person you love.

I'm sitting in precisely this seat right now, having moved abroad for my PhD, leaving my soon to be wife in our country of origin, where she tends to her MSc and her job at her department. We've resigned ourselves to not being able to live together until at the earliest when both PhDs are over and done with - but the thought of never being able to pursue our interests while also living together is pretty damn terrifying, and already now risks driving her out of academia again.
I cannot comment on the academic sector, but this regularly happens in corporate america. In most situations the new employer would hire the services of a recruiter to find the partner a new job.
Nepotism is the issue, and it's illegal and unethical. Imagine the stink if your divorced university president found a good, high-salaried job for his/her new partner.

Can you imagine the stink resulting from the following scenario? A newish president restructures an entire administrative department, creates a new directorship, thanks to the restructure, and hires his wife to be the director, with absolutely no search process and not other candidates considered, and she then becomes one of the 3 top paid employees of the college.

Oh wait, there was no stink. Board approved it. I've barely even heard disapproving murmurs. Me, I'm still in shock at the impropriety. Perhaps she is the best person for the job, but if it were me, I would want to be interviewed competitively, so that everyone in the institution would have confidence in me.

One added bonus? This happened at a very small college that has a very tight budget.
As Trailing Wife in a non-academic discipline, I never thought I would be in the position of seeking a Spousal Hire. But here I am. Dear Hubby is offered his first position in an area where everyone in my area (social services) wants hires who are bilingual. I'm from a little town in The Sticks Midwest, where knowing Spanish was never a job requirement. So yes, we are seeking an administrative or professional staff spousal hire. I have identified areas in the university where my skills would be useful and transfer easily. I have 10 years under my belt in my profession, and have the stellar evaluations and reccomendations to prove my worth. I work hard, and am good at what I do. I just don't speak Spanish! I am most certainly not "mediocre"-- just "out-of-the box."
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