Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Ask the Administrator: Presidential Spouses

A new correspondent writes:

The small, regional university at which I teach in the Midwest has a new president. He has what I believe to be a unique approach to administration: his wife is present with him at every school function, and is always introduced as "First Lady of (insert school name)." This has recently progressed to her appearing in newsletters and promotional materials as "First Lady of..."

I have never encountered this at any of the schools I attended or at which I taught before taking this position. My question for your readers: does this sort of honorific exist for the president's spouse at your school (and, if the spouse is male, what is his honorary title)?...

I realize this is probably a minor issue, but it just seems a little...well...weird. While it may simply be an eccentricity, it causes me to slightly worry regarding future issues like budget decisions. "Yes, we need to begin repairs on the wall that crumbled to the ground on the north side of the Humanities Building, but first we must erect a statue at the university entrance honoring the Czarina of..."

Sometimes I wonder what year this is. From the recent financial sector news, I'm thinking 1929. From this letter, I'm thinking 1950.

As near as I can tell, there are exactly two reasonable ways of dealing with Presidential spouses. One is to treat them like any other spouses. The other – which makes sense only in certain contexts – is to recognize the job of Presidential Spouse as a de facto social director, draw up a job description for the social director part, and pay a salary. In the context of some large institutions, where the President basically reports to the Development office, the President is largely the fundraiser-in-chief, with the spouse serving as a sort of chief of domestic staff. To the extent that this description applies, a salary or stipend of some sort is probably in order. I find that weird, but it captures the reality of some places.

What's happening in this example, I think, is a pretty highly developed case of Presidential narcissism.

Presidents are very visible figures, and to some degree they're never entirely off camera. This strikes me as a dangerous development in many ways. One of the ways I stay sane – and mine is a much lower-profile position – is by having a home life that's pretty cleanly separated from my work life. My kids have no idea what I do all day, and TW only gets vague outlines. That's not to protect anything nefarious, but just so the politics and drama at work don't contaminate home, too. Switching between 'work brain' and 'home brain' keeps me from burning out on either one. (The unfortunate side effect is that any requests to take care of something “on the way home” or “during lunch” frequently get forgotten, since I'm in 'work brain' mode.) Blogging is somewhere in between, since I do it at home and it's mostly about higher-ed issues, but I find it therapeutic.

The people who can't separate the two, and who have very high-profile positions, strike me as high-risk. Either they eventually just forget that the camera is on (like the Iowa cc President I mentioned last week), or, more commonly, they cannibalize their home lives until their marriages fall apart. (Anecdotally, I've noticed a high divorce rate among college Presidents.)

Involving the spouse as First Mate might seem to help, but it gives me the creeps. It's obviously subservient, introducing workplace hierarchy where it ought not to be. It puts the First Mate in an awkward position in terms of internal college politics, which could easily make things worse. It puts the other employees in some awkward situations. And what happens if the First Couple separates or divorces, and the First Mate doesn't want to give up the job? (Let's say for pension or health insurance reasons.) Yucka yucka yuck. No, thanks. That has 'ugly' written all over it.

It's easy for Presidents – not a bunch of shrinking violets anyway – to forget where the boundaries are, and to conflate their personal convenience with the good of the college. All the more reason for colleges not to let them, I say.

I've been lucky enough that every place I've worked has treated Presidential spouses just like any other spouses. That seems sane to me. Quasi-royalist trappings don't make sense in 2008.

Wise and worldly readers – what have you seen? What do you think?

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

I'm sorry..I just can't get beyond the "First Lady" title. As DD says, it shows spectacular narcissism on the part of your President. OTOH, you can't directly call him on it, because then it sounds like you're insulting his wife, which is a very, very bad move.

If I were on the faculty, the urge to make the point in a more subtle way would be irresistible. I might be inclined to arrange things so that "Hail to the Chief" was playing on someone's iPod speakers as he walked by. Or buy a nice, new red carpet for outside his office. Or casually slap a magnetic bumper sticker that says "[name of your college] Air Force One" onto his car. Nothing destructive, nothing malicious, just trying to give him the idea that he might want to step it back a little.
Like you, DD, I would find this laughable if it were not so likely to produce future problems. In my observation and experience, Presidential (or Deanly) Spouse pretty much *is* a de facto full-time job. When you're lucky, you get a First Couple both of whom understand and have signed-on for that duty, and who understand that their conduct, on- and off-campus, their job performance, their social contacts, and even their own living space (upper administration homes have always struck as performing as much a theatrical as a domicile function) are going to be offered-up on the altar of The Job.

To me, the "First Lady of..." locution is indicative of problems even beyond the ones that you've cited, and with which I agree. What kind of ridiculous un-self-aware hubris must a college president have to assign to his spouse a title only attached to gubernatorial or Presidential spouses? What *else* is he likely to be puffed-up about, and what's it going to cost to maintain his puffed-up-ness?

This is the kind of situation that I typically want to bring discreetly to the attention of a couple of student authors of letters-to-the-college-paper. One mocking editorial or guest column in the student rag about "First Lady X" and "First Husband Y" and the Prez is likely to re-think use of the title.

My experience with such things is that the President who treates his wife like that is male, and very invested in traditional gender roles. The problem for the school is that he'll tend to treat female faculty as "wives" rather than professionals, and that sexism will carry through in really nasty ways.
I'd go you one better, Dictyranger, and hire the band to play Hail to the Chief live for the price of a dozen pizzas. :D

DD, it actually makes me think of ministry couples, where the wife is expected to serve as a de facto social director and community organizer (and frequently unofficial "head of counseling") for no pay. (When it's a woman minister, it's never expected of the husband, but so many churches are used to 300 years of getting twofers out of married male ministers.) Ministers also have inordinately high divorce rates.

Another insidious problem this creates is that women in ministry are often expected to be the minister AND the wife, and take on double duty -- traditional ministerial roles, and traditional wifely roles. Are women college presidents subjected to the same pressures to be president AND social director?

And boy howdy would I not be able to NOT mock if someone other than the president or governor introduced his wife as "the First Lady." And even then, dude, in 50 out of 51 cases, you're just the governor. That level of pretension in a college president deserves vicious mockery. Can you imagine community reaction? "Here comes yet another clueless self-important academic!"

(This reminds me of an expert witness from academia my husband worked with who kept insisting on being called "doctor" in inappropriate settings. The lawyers had a hoot mocking him like crazy ... and never invited him back, since he spent a good deal of his testimony protesting that he spent a billion years in grad school in order to be called DOCTOR, and then spent ALL of his non-testimony time at the firm, at lunch, at dinner, etc., making the same point.)
Wow, you guys are all taking this very seriously. How could there not be some self-mockery on the president's part here? It sounds exactly like the kind of gentle humor that works in small midwestern places (think Lake Wobegon). I've studied/worked at places in the past where I could see the president doing the same thing, but they would have been laughing at themselves--and they've been better executives for it, too.
My undergraduate institution was affiliated with the Catholic church and our president was a priest (not the famous school, it's less famous, more westerly sibling) which pretty much took care of that problem.

When I was working at a CC in Iowa our president basically kept his wife away from the college. I think it was compartmentalizing.

At my current institution our 'first wife' is a faculty member, but watching her at a few functions it seems that she's also expected to socialize with board members... Thus, some form of unpaid 'cruise director' status seems to be the case.

A couple of questions:
1) If the spouse in question is of the same gender does this change things?

There's 11 of them according the CHE, and IHE noted that the president of Hampshire College engages his (now) spouse in the traditional cruise director functions.

If you hire a president and unmarried partner what do you call them if "first lady" is the previous term?
Well, our college is just like the letter-writers: both the previous and current presidents called their wives "the First Lady of Whatever University." Not sure what was expected of these spouses, but we always have to clap for her at functions.
Me, I find it silly that this question was asked. This is one of those questions that an academic should be able to answer "on their own." (the question specifically is: "My question for your readers: does this sort of honorific exist for the president's spouse at your school (and, if the spouse is male, what is his honorary title)?...")

A simple Google Search of "first lady university" had, on the first results page, Kettering University (http://is.gd/2I5i), Lynn University (http://is.gd/2I5g) and Lipscomb University (http://is.gd/2I5n) The second results page continues the list. I leave the proof to you to work through.

What is most intriguing to me is that so many of you get worked up over this. In reading the school websites it appears to me that this is a recognition that the position of President places a great demand on the family of the President as well, and that this is simply an acknowledgment of the role the spouse plays.

But feel free to get all worked up over this tempest. Tea is now served.
Hello,your blog is very beautiful.
This looks very interesting and do want to spend some time looking it over.
This sort of situation rings the alarm bells of fraud with me: looks like someone is looking for reasons to put his spouse on the payroll. I'm not familiar with the details of the arrangement, but if this happened at my institution, I'd inquire at HR about this.
Pseudonymous: "Worked up" is a little strong, I think. I'm more amused than scandalized.

That said, being spouse of a college President is demanding, but so is being the spouse of a colonel or a high-level manager. Comes with the territory. (Eyebrows McGee is also correct that this tends to be rougher on female Presidents, and it's just as much a problem for female officers, I'm told.)

I suspect that if the college President had referred jokingly to his wife as the "First Lady" during an intro speech at a banquet, which is what rubashov seems to be envisioning, everyone would have given it a good chuckle. Using it consistently in official newsletters suggests something a bit less appealing, such as terminal stuffed-shirtery.
paul, sometimes one doesn't need to look far for reasons to put the spouse on the payroll: the enormous number of events, often in the president's home, that she is expected to prepare for, host and clean up after.

One presidential couple I know has resisted the idea of putting his spouse on the payroll, because then she'd be reporting to him, and what does that do to the home life? To me, the issue of the honorific, or another job title, or job compensation for a presidential spouse is tied up with the concept of the president's home as an extension of campus... That housing situation can contribute to making separation of work and home life impossible for college presidents.
Well, I'm surprised at how "worked up" everyone is about this and how quick people are to attribute negative motivations to the president and/or spouse.

The truth is that the president's job at most 4 year colleges and universitys is to be the "first family" of the university. Just go look at how many of the president's office web pages have pictures of the president and spouse/family. Most universities would never dream of hiring a president without meeting the spouse, and the spouse serves as an extension of the president. Perhaps its built on the "old" model of spouse as homemaker, but that "old model" is alive and well and by and large institutions expect it from the president and the spouse. Most spouses aren't paid yet are expected to "host" events and appear at pther campus events. I think this does present issues for presidents about the line between public and private, but I think when you are president, especially at a residential institution, you are never "off the clock." (The president from the Iowa CC you refer to wasn't confused about when he was "off duty" as much as he figured that he could do whatever he wanted. Remember, he had already had a "incident" that involved something negative earlier in his presidency).

At any rate, I wouldn't call my spouse "the first lady of XXX U" but if were the president people would expect her to act like she was!
No one seems to have mentioned an alternative to hiring formally the spouse of the President: instead they can choose to marry another high staffer at the university. (See "high divorce rate.") The politics that result are approximately what you'd expect.
I guess that makes TW "First Lady" of your cc Dean Dad. =]

...I can only dream of the day when I will be first lady of a community college!
I've often wondered why "First Ladies" are part of the American tradition; surely only the elected person should count, right? I'm just happy that Canada has mostly avoided that particular political development thus far...
Our president hired his wife, a Ph.D. but with little experience and untenured, as dean of the grad school.
I am a wife of a president of a small liberal arts college. I am called the First Lady because that's what the previous wives of the presidents have been called for 200 years. I do not have a salary nor do I volunteer at the college. (I used to volunteer until someone who was fired accused me of taking her job). How a president and his or her spouse want to be regarded on campus reflects on them as individuals. Every college president has their own "era" or period of time they are in office. It must have been a shock to have a new presidential era begin with the President and his wife acting like A king and queen. I do attend events with my husband, but I am reserved and rather shy so I don't like to draw attention to myself. I have a part time job and still have kids at home. I do behind the scenes networking for the college. some First Ladies are nuts, but they would be nutty no mafter where they lived or what job they had. I am friends with the former First Lady of our college and she was never satisfied with Building and Grounds staff. She would drive around in a golf cart and power wash buildings and pull weeds. She is still spotted around campus with a paint brush in her hand occasionally. Spme people think she is moving in on "my territory" which is silly. Honastly, First Ladies are a lonely bunch; we never can find anyone who is not connected to the college to have as a friend.
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