Friday, February 01, 2008


Ask the Administrator: The Case of the Haunting Husband

A new chair writes:

I am a first year chair of a medium sized department at a community college (college population 12-18,000 FTEs).

My department has experienced a baby boom retirement wave; we have replaced four retirees in the past six years, and there are more retirements pending.

We have assembled a strong faculty of talented people in our field, as the department makes this personnel transition. Our new folks are good, solid instructors, as well as good human beings - we all are dedicated instructors and get along well.

Last year we hired an outstanding faculty member. Her husband also has a terminal degree in our field. We hired him as an adjunct.

The situation: something just feels a little odd. We are not getting to know our tenure track faculty member as an individual. It's "MaryandBob" instead of "Mary."

Any advice or cautions for us? This is the first time this department has dealt with a husband and wife combination.

I'll admit being jealous of your hiring boom. It's much easier to build a culture when you get to choose the people who comprise it. It sounds like you've been choosing pretty well.

In fact, I wonder if things have come so easy that you've started to expect a little too much.

I'm not sure what it means to say that “we are not getting to know our tenure track faculty member as an individual.” Surely she teaches her own classes, advises her own students, and tends to her own professional development and college service. (If not, then you have a much larger problem.) Surely, too, she expresses her opinions in department meetings. So what, exactly, is the problem?

Is “Bob” showing up where he shouldn't? If so, you probably need to talk to him. Is “Mary” blowing off her obligations? If so, then you need to talk to her. I wouldn't advise talking to them together, since that would probably become two (them) against one (you) pretty quickly. Besides, if the problem is indistinct identities, then talking to them together, as opposed to separately, reinforces the problem.

I wonder if “Bob” considers himself 'next in line' for the next hire. I've seen that before, and it's not pretty. He may not be entirely clear on the boundaries of his role in the department.

Or you may have been spoiled by success, and have come to expect friction-free interaction with everybody 'just knowing' what they're supposed to do. Good hiring can make it possible to get away with that; heaven knows I have a strong bias in favor of self-directed people. (I'll go farther, and say that someone who needs a lot of direction is a high risk for 'retiring on the job' upon receiving tenure.)

But it may be that MaryandBob don't quite 'get' your expectations, and you haven't yet been in a position where you actually had to spell them out. So they're doing something that rubs you the wrong way, but you haven't entirely formulated what or why that is, and they have no idea.

Unwritten rules are hard to follow. They're hard to enforce, too, to the extent that 'unwritten' means 'not really thought out.' From your note, it sounds like there's an unwritten expectation – an unconsious assumption, really -- that people will hang out together, be friends outside of work, and form a happy departmental family. There's nothing wrong with that when it happens naturally; certainly, real friendships are wonderful things. But it's not part of the job description, and it can't be forced without doing violence to the employment relationship, the friendships, or both.

I've never been a fan of the “we're like a family” school of management. It leads to invalid expectations, role confusions, and lots of misplaced conflict. (Among other things, some people's family lives could be described as 'deeply messed up.' You really don't want them playing out those psychodramas at work.) Workplaces aren't families. Children don't strive for tenure. (If anything, they strive for escape!) Certain kinds of intimacies that are entirely appropriate at home are out-of-bounds at work.

My guess is that your unspoken expectations, whatever they might be, don't match MaryandBob's. So the first thing to do – before you even approach MaryandBob – is to figure out what your expectations of them actually are. Are they reasonable? Do they make sense? If you write them down, and look at them as if someone handed them to you, do they pass the 'gimme a break' test?

If they don't, then you have some work to do on your own.

If they do, then you need to have a discussion with Mary – sans Bob – about your expectations and where she isn't meeting them. She may not know that there's a problem, or, more likely, she may sense it but not know quite what it is. Putting the cards on the table makes it more likely that you'll reach some sort of constructive resolution, whether that involves behavior change, expectation change, or job change.

Good luck! You've got some tough work to do.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

DD suggests that Bob might think he's "next in line" for a job. As an adjunct, I'd suggest that it's possible that -- while Bob may feel no entitlement -- BobandMary are hoping that his departmental connection will help people get to know him and his work, which might HELP when additional jobs become available. So long as Bob doesn't seem to have decided that the next job is his, you might want to adjust expectations. Maybe this is a chance for the department to actually get to know their adjuncts the way they know their FT colleagues.
I'm Mary in a MaryandBob situation, and have been for several years now; our department seems quite comfortable with the situation. One advantage to consider is that while other adjuncts typically have little motivation to spend much time on campus (most of ours don't even hold full office hours), Bob has more reason to feel connected to the department and its students. That might come across as having improper expectations, or you could simply see it as a big advantage for your students compared to an adjunct who comes in for his hour of class and then leaves.
You really can't fault Bob (or Mary) for trying to do whatever it takes to get Bob a ft job. As we all know, all's fair in love, war, and seeking a tenure track position.

This chair is in a sticky predicament. If he tells Maryand Bob that it's never gonna' happen, Bob is never getting a ft gig, then Mary is not going to feel the departmental gemutlichkeit. And if Bob one day lands a job in another state, you can probably kiss Mary goodbye.

Also, how many of the tenure track class bring spouses to the pot lucks? Is there a bit of a double standard here because Bob is an academic and is in need of a ft job?

You might want to think about this in terms of a distinction between the "haves" and the "have nots" -- because that is the essence of the tenure-track versus adjunct separation. MaryandBob are a have-and-have-not entity, and until both belong to the "haves," the "have not" will override. Your best bet, I think, assuming Bob is a god teacher, and qualified, is to hire him. Your problem will then go away.
I think I understand what the department chair may be talking about when s/he describes not getting to know Mary as an individual. We have a fair number of couples in my department (all for the good, I'd say, with some starting as lecturers and then becoming t-t and others remaining as f-t lecturers and still others both being t-t from the outset), but some people handle the "married couple in same department" thing differently than others do.

For the most part, my colleagues who are partnered with other colleagues work very hard to make themselves distinct from one another. Of course on social occasions they come together in the same car and stuff, but they don't serve on the same committees, don't necessarily sit next to one another in department meetings (only chatting to one another), don't respond with a "we" answer every time something social comes up. In other words, they make a point to represent themselves as individuals and thus the department responds to them as such.

However, there is a couple in my department who does not do the above, and I don't feel like I know either of them individually. They operate in the department very much as Husbandandwife, as if they are the same person, and they tend to isolate themselves from others in the department, forming a bit of a club of two. These are both people I respect, and I don't anticipate that either will have trouble with tenure or anything, but I also feel like I don't really know either of them individually and at this point I don't really care to keep trying to do so, as any efforts that I've made haven't meant squat.

All of that said, I think that if you think that this situation will affect Mary's standing in the dept. and progress toward tenure, you need to talk to Mary about it without Bob - on this I agree with Dean Dad. As chair, it's your job to help her navigate the path to tenure, and that should be your first priority.
Second Line - who is to say Mary didn't land a ft gig in another state, and Bob's previous dept kissed him goodbye? Man, I hate assumptions that a woman will leave a tenure track job just because her husband gets one somewhere else. I mean, yeah, it could happen, but you have no idea what the circumstances are here.

I'm made profoundly uncomfortable by the nebulous nature of the chair's words about not being able to get to know Mary on an individual basis. What the heck does this mean?
Sorry J, didn't mean it that way. I was only responding to the tenure-track and non-tenure-track aspect of the situation. I didn't even think of gender. I wasn't assuming Mary would give up her tenure track gig because she's a female; I figured she *might* give it up because commuting several hunderd miles a week to maintain a marriage sucks. And of course, if the reverse were the case, then Bob might be the one to go where Mary lands a job.

But your implication is noted: Bob may opt to not take a tenure track gig because it's several hundred miles away. But that might place an even greater onus on this chair to pony up.
I know exactly what the original poster means. It's the couple that is always having lunch together, never stops to chat in the hall because they're engrossed in conversation with each other, etc.
How is it "reverse" ageism (Reverse? ageism is ageism, although it affects the older adult more than the younger person) when it seems most people are so very glad to see the older instructors leave and are more than unlikely to hire someone in their 50s?
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