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.

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