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.