Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Administration and the Two-Body Problem

In response to yesterday’s piece about the lack of generational turnover in college leadership, a particularly thoughtful comment deserved a post in itself. “Shannon” wrote:

I think one thing that gets overlooked in these analyses is the two body problem. Many faculty are part of dual career partnerships - both inside and outside academia. That tends to limit geographic mobility or put burdens on the non-administrative half of the partnership. DD - you often mention the rubber chicken dinners; attending those meant TW had to take responsibility for the kids. I also believe she left the work force for a while because of the demands of your career - right? I think some may feel that's a lot to ask of a partner. I'd like to enter into administration, but my husband is also a faculty member and we have small kids. So, I'll probably look locally so he can keep his career; luckily, there's a lot of options around where we live, but without a faculty fall back, that creates a lot of risk for our family - if things don't work out in a new position, our two body problem will come back. I'll also probably wait until the kids are older; this phenomena is similar to the one in politics where female candidates tend to enter the ring much later than male candidates. Unfortunately, administration doesn't lend itself to work/family balance, and I think that helps to dry up the pipeline somewhat.

A few thoughts, then I’d love to hear from my wise and worldly readers on this.

First, no, TW did not leave the work force because of the demands of my career. She chose to stay home with the kids because she wanted to; it was a positive goal, rather than a retreat. (The fact that nearly her entire paycheck went for daycare also played into it.) I know that not everyone experiences staying home that way, but that was how it played out for us.

That said, yes, her presence at home makes my work easier. When she went to work and TB got sick, we had to do the sick kid shuffle, which any working parent can tell you is a stress bomb. Now when the kids get sick -- like this week, in fact -- it’s less disruptive, at least at first. (It gets more disruptive with each passing day, though, since she has obligations of her own.)

But the larger point isn’t about TW and me; it’s about the two-body problem as limiting the availability of Gen X candidates for administrative positions. It certainly rings true to me.

When academics marry each other -- don’t do it!!! -- they set themselves up for some real challenges. Finding a tenure-track job you actually want to keep is a challenge; finding two of them within reasonable drives of each other is much more so. Once a couple finds that situation, it would take quite a bit to dislodge them. (That’s even more true if they’re underwater on their mortgage.)

Since many administrative positions don’t come with tenure, they carry real risk. For a couple that finally won the academic lottery, the prospect of leaving that for a job without the protection of tenure is a tough sell. And even if the administrative job comes with tenure in a department, the spouse may be left high and dry.

Administrative careers often require moving in order to move up. That’s just a fact of life. If you’re in a college-rich area, you may be able to switch institutions without actually moving, but most of the time, that’s not an option. So if one (or both) of the spouses wants to climb the ladder, they’re in for some hard decisions.

Spousal hiring is a topic unto itself, of course. Suffice it to say that the ‘softer’ solutions -- polite requests to neighboring colleges to find a spot for someone -- tend not to work. If, say, the history department gets its first hire in a decade, just how eager do you think it’ll be to spend it on a trailing spouse it didn’t choose for itself?

Exactly. Some of those hires turn out well, but the resentment is real. And in this market, where positions are few and far between, it’s a much harder sell than it once was.

I don’t really have an answer for this. To require colleges to hire spouses assumes a level of loose resources lying around that generally isn’t the case, and it also becomes de facto discrimination against single people and folks married to non-academics. Tenure and higher salaries for tough-to-fill positions would help, but would be politically toxic. Sometimes it’s possible to move up within a home institution, and that’s great when it works out, but counting on it is assuming a lot.

Wise and worldly readers, has anyone found a reasonably elegant way to handle the two-body problem in administrative careers?