Tuesday, January 10, 2017

I Can’t Believe This Is Still a Thing

(with apologies to John Oliver)

You don’t get to judge my wife.  

I would think that would be obvious.  Yet Boards of Trustees often feel entitled -- even obligated, somehow -- to interview the spouses or partners of candidates.

Tuesday’s IHE had a piece on the spousal interview, but it didn’t mention community colleges.  One would think -- I had thought -- that such a practice wouldn’t exist in the community college sector.  It’s unusual here to have an “official residence,” in which the spouse would be expected to entertain.  (Whether that makes any sense in other sectors, I’ll leave to folks in those sectors.)  And if there isn’t an official residence, and the spouse isn’t being considered for a job, what business is it of theirs?

And yet, some boards think it is.  I know because a couple of years ago, when I was on the market, I had boards at two colleges make the request.  TW indulged the first one, then decided there was no need to go through that again.  I couldn’t blame her; she wasn’t up for a job herself, so why go through another job interview?  Especially when it involved days of out-of-state travel with school-aged kids at home.

With apologies to John Oliver for stealing his phrase, I can’t believe this is still a thing.

The article mentions that Boards’ expectations of wives are often more elaborate than their expectations of husbands.  That can cut two ways; in both of the cases in which the request was made of me, the eventual winner was female.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the free pass their partners got played into it.  

Last Fall I asked a search consultant at Aspen about the practice of boards interviewing spouses.  He didn’t think there was anything weird about it.  The group seemed evenly divided between those who thought it unremarkable and those who understood that it was preposterous and offensive.  

And this isn’t about TW.  She’s terrific: in many ways, she leaves me in the dust.  That’s not the point.

It’s about basic respect.  Spouses are not accessories.  They are fully autonomous adults who have their own interests, pursuits, and identities.  Marriages or long-term relationships are both specific and deeply personal.  The ways that spouses support each other are idiosyncratic, fluid, and best left to them.  

In religiously affiliated colleges, I could see the argument.  But community colleges are public, and therefore secular.  Their diversity is their strength.  Insisting on a 1950’s marriage for men, while shrugging at women, is indefensible.  It is out of bounds.  

And that’s just in the context of heterosexual relationships.  Spouse-screening seems like a pretty easy way to carry out homophobia, if a board is so inclined.  If it isn’t so inclined, why does it need to know?

If I were to ask a candidate for a faculty position or a deanship about his or her spouse in an interview, I could be taken to HR and possibly to court, and rightly so.  It would be considered an egregious violation of privacy, and presumptive evidence of discriminatory intent.  Yet for presidents, many boards consider it entirely appropriate.

No.  Just, no.

I try to maintain a relatively even keel here, and to avoid getting brittle or dogmatic.  But this is flatly unacceptable.  It is inappropriate, unavoidably sexist, and far beyond what any job interview should cover.  It’s wrong.  

Here’s an idea for avoiding the awkward asymmetry among different types of relationships in interviews: don’t ask.  Interview the person you’re considering hiring, and leave their personal lives to them.  Even presidents deserve a home life.  Show respect for boundaries, set your professional expectations high, and back off from the marital bedroom.  I can’t believe this is still a thing.