What to think about spousal/partner hires?


That is the question for today, children.  What do we think?  Are we pro-spousal/partner hires?  Do we resent them, or merely envy them?  (Who other than superstars can bargain for a spousal accommodation now, anyway?  A friend of mine commented recently, “we talk about them all the time, but I don’t know anyone who got one.”)  Are they an urban legend, like the story about the peculiar-looking ravenous stray dog who turned out to be an enormous rat eating a family out of house and home?  (You know the one–you heard that story in college, too, didn’t you?)

Reasons to embrace partner/spousal hires:

  1. How the heck else can you lure decent faculty to Waco, Texas, Kearny, Nebraska, Oxford, Ohio, or (for that matter) Fort Collins, Colorado, and keep them there?  If job candidates are married to other academics, institutions should see spousal hires as part of their strategic plan to recruit and retain quality faculty.  And considering that much of the top talent comes either from the two coasts or Chicago, or a few top-notch university towns elsewhere, for universities located in (shall we say?) charmingly pastoral and quiet out-of-the-way towns, you have to figure that you’d dramatically lower your chances of doing a given search over again in 3 years if you can help the successful candidate avoid a lifetime of commuting in-between Bloomington and Philadelphia (for example).
  2. It’s an opportunity to increase the number of tenure lines in your department.  If the Dean is offering you a tenure line, take the money and run.  Unless you find the prospective new colleague truly unprepared, incapable of the job, or profoundly objectionable, how does it hurt your department to play ball with the Dean’s office? 
  3. If you play ball with the Dean, it might be a favor that is returned to your department.  You never know!
  4. It helps with recruiting women faculty especially, since there are still (unfortunately) many more wives who follow their husbands’ careers than husbands who will relocate for their wives’ job opportunities.
  5. (Your turn!)

Reasonable reasons to resent or resist partner/spousal hires:

  1. They’re just another kind of favoritism that heterosexuals enjoy and gay faculty don’t.  While there are some institutions that offer partner hires, anecdotally I hear that if you’re gay, you have to be a super-duper-superstar to get one (as opposed to the mere superstars that heteros must be.)
  2. They’re just another kind of favoritism that partnered people enjoy that single faculty don’t.  (Since the widespread assumption is that unmarried/unpartnered faculty have no personal lives or any need whatsoever for time away from their wonderful colleagues or beloved students, they already get saddled with more than their share of after-hours service, like running the Trivial Pursuit marathon for the History Club.  Hiring more married or partnered people by design will only exacerbate this injustice!)
  3. Departments should decide their hiring priorities, not other departments or the Dean’s office.  A common objection raised against spousal hires is that they will “take up” a tenure-track line that a department would otherwise have been able to define as they choose.
  4. (Your turn!)

Unreasonable reasons (according to Historiann only) to object to partner/spousal hires:

  1. No one ever did anything for your partner/spouse, so you don’t feel inclined to stick your neck out for anyone else.
  2. People are responsible for their own personal lives.  Why should a workplace have to come up with two jobs for one family, when there are so many deserving job candidates desperate for just ONE job offer?  Either take the job, or don’t.  Suck it up, or move on. 
  3. The reputation of our department will suffer if we hire someone who didn’t survive the rigors of a national or international open search.
  4. (Your turn–to agree, disagree, or add to this list.)

UPDATE, later this morning:  Uncharacteristically, I forgot to mention that we’ve got a session that will I’m sure discuss partner and spousal hires at the upcoming Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, which meets this June 12-15 at the University of Minnesota.  (Details here, and program here.)  The roundtable is called “DUAL CAREERS IN ACADEMIA: CHALLENGES, EXPERIENCES, AND STRATEGIES,” and features Laura L. Lovett, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, on “A Campus of One’s Own: The Costs and Benefits of Dual Careers;” Natasha Zaretsky, Southern Illinois University, on “Two Historians in the Family;” Eve Weinbaum, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, on “Union Responses to Work and Family Issues;” and Andrea Davies Henderson, Stanford University, on “Dual-Career Academic Couples.”  Come on down and join the party in Minneapolis, if you can!

0 thoughts on “What to think about spousal/partner hires?

  1. I would sort of like to hear more about why reason number two in the last group of reasons is unreasonable. I don’t necessarily think that it is or isn’t, it just doesn’t seem to jump out as a natural philosophical “partner” for reasons number one and three in that group. Maybe because it’s more artfully as well as hypothetically-phrased?

    Craziest spousal non-hire story I’ve ever semi-witnessed: Dept. (A) was trying to fill a carefully defined space in its offerings in Early Modern {Somethingorother} History, a search that had failed before. It did the courtship dance with an early mid-career rising star and after a couple of years made the offer. Her hub, considerably older than her, had published four books on a fairly narrow but perfectly respectable set of subjects, then moved into administration. The dean’s office at U. (A) was willing to hire him with the proviso that Dept. (A) make a courtesy appointment that would involve no inherent “right to teach,” just a listing as a department member. No consensus to do so proved to be achievable and the search failed. And was performed again several more times in the years after that. This in a very NON-dysfunctional dept.


  2. There’s another issue to consider which I hate to bring up. What if a couple (gay or straight, married or single) is hired and they then break up or get divorced? Would make for some mighty awkward department meetings!

    I do have a lesbian colleague whose partner was offered a job in another state (after several years looking for a tenure-track job). The college came up with an administrative job for my colleague — however, the offer wasn’t that good and their relationship hit the rocks around the same time, so they’ve separated.


  3. Yeah, Indyanna–I’m a little ambivalent about the very point you call out: “People are responsible for their own personal lives. Why should a workplace have to come up with two jobs for one family, when there are so many deserving job candidates desperate for just ONE job offer?”

    I guess I would say that while I sort of agree with the sentiment, I think that creating a blanket policy against spousal hires for that reason would lead to foolishness of the sort you describe in the second part of your comment. Why count out perfectly good candidates if they’re not 28 years old, middle-class, in good health, and have no family responsibilities? Most of us have more complicated lives than that, and trying to work with candidates and their individual situations seems like a worthy policy.


  4. KC–another good point. But, I would say that it’s up to the divorcing parties to keep it out of the workplace. (And if that doesn’t light a fire under someone’s butt to find another job, what will? Provided that there are no children under 18 still in the house, anyway.) Who would WANT to work with an ex? But, I guess it happens all the time.

    I see this as a variant of what happens in work relationships that aren’t sexual. I’ve been around just long enough (although still a dewey young thing, natch!) to see collegial friendships change, if not sour, and people manage to still work together in a mostly responsible and adult fashion despite the changes in their relationships.


  5. I should add: the issue KC raises has to do with intradepartmental spousal hires. I suppose I should have tried to sort out spousal hires within the same department, and between two different departments, but this post was getting long enough! Perhaps you all will find a better way of thinking through these issues with these two new variables in mind, too.


  6. Great post Historiann!

    I’m in a mid-level university that suffers horribly from faculty flight. The university has been hurt in terms of retention of students, and faculty suffer because we are constantly doing searches. In addition, we try to shield new hires from service for their first year or two, but when half the deparment is new, the service burden of senior faculty is tremendous. It would seem to me that spousal hires are a great way to establish some stability. Most academics understand how rare it is to get two t/t jobs in the same place, so there is less incentive to leave, even for a ‘better’ job.

    That said, three candidates requested spousal hires in our latest round of searches, and all were denied.

    Interestingly, the two women who asked subsequently turned down the offer, while the male candidate accepted.


  7. ej–isn’t that usually the way? (Men take jobs in spite of their wives’ lack of opportunity, whereas for women it’s a deal breaker.) I wish more women were ruthless careerists, but I guess it’s just not ladylike…

    But: as I recall, at your university there was a spousal hire in another (deeply troubled) department. (Perhaps not a spousal hire, but rather an accomodation made only after the duo in question had spent several years in a long-distance marriage.) But: they both left for another university last year, without a spousal accomodation for the tagalong (in this case, a the more senior husband.) So, partner/spousal hires might be good for functional departments, but when two people in the same family have to work in a miserable, broken department, it kind of doubles the misery and therefore perhaps also the chance that they’ll leave anyway?


  8. It’s funny but our department has a huge number of spousal hires — maybe as much as a third. And we are not in a horrible place, but rather a very pretty spot in CA. (Maybe it’s because it’s so expensive that you have to have two solid incomes to survive here?)

    And all of ours are both in the Eng. department — oh no, wait, there’s one that’s split between Eng and film.

    I totally agree with spousal hires inc for LGBT couples, but I still get this nasty feeling of envy and resource protection in my stomach whenever I see it happen: why do _they_ get to take up _two_ faculty lines and I still can’t get a job just for my lonesome?

    It’s not pretty, but it’s there.


  9. Sis–it’s an understandable feeling. I think envy is endemic in a profession where there are so few jobs relative to the competition. However, you may be the beneficiary of a similar favor one day, right? (If not a partner hire, perhaps something else?)


  10. This thread has had me thinking for a while, but to no clear points or arguments.

    I see the spousal hire question as a subset of the issue of to what extent connections are needed for hiring. Let me flesh this out a little.

    The History department at the Cal State campus where I went for undergrad was unabashed in its use of connections for hiring. Most of the faculty came from either UCLA or the nearby Claremont Graduate School (now University). When a position came open in Latin American, the department had its choice of a likeable middle-aged Latina, a quality young man fresh out of the University of Chicago armed with a letter of recommendation from the then president of the AHA, and another scholar who had been teaching locally at a junior college and was previously known to a couple of faculty members. They chose the latter.

    This sent a message to me, as a young historian: it’s who you know. It wasn’t a message I was pleased to receive. I had hoped, perhaps as many of us do when we are younger, that the field we are going into is as meritocratic as possible. With the job market so tight (this was 1995), who wanted to think that half of all the jobs posted were already earmarked for candidates departments were already acquainted with? Years later, after I left my PhD program, two of my former Cal State faculty inferred to me that had I continued, I would have received special consideration had I applied there. Indeed, they have hired two of their alumni in recent years.

    Now, eleven years after leaving grad school and having tracked dozens of career paths of friends and acquaintances, some have gotten jobs without knowing anyone at the school that hired them, and others have received jobs partially due to connections. One who is a quality faculty member but not a star scored a spousal hire for his wife at an upper-tier state school, in the same field he is in, in the same department, naturlich.

    Spousal hires are the ultimate connection-based hire. It is a hire of someone the department knows as a favor to someone in the department. This is not to say that there are not good and valid reasons for them, but from the standpoint of someone on the outside they make academia look a little less of a meritocracy, even when the person hired is well-qualified for the job, as all the spousal-hired couples I know are.

    The perk of a spousal hire also illuminates the caste difference between tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty. Would a spousal hire request from a Lecturer get a millisecond of serious consideration by a department chair or dean? Why or why not should it be different for non-tenure track full-time faculty? Considering it in this light may help clarify what the real motivations for spousal hires are. Is it a recruitment and retention tool or an expensive perk distributed among academia’s in-crowd?

    Whew. More than I wanted to write. Thanks for reading this far.


  11. Here’s another one for the lists — couples stick together in dept meetings. We have several couples in our department, although I wouldn’t refer to all as “spousal hires” since it’s not always clear which one is the spousal hire (in some cases both had jobs at different universities before joining us). Having been part of many, many contentious debates over the last few years, I have yet to see a couple take different sides. In any case, I’m waiting for the day…but would you want to dine with someone who just took down your job candidate?


  12. Geoff — just to give you another side to the scenario you describe above, I teach at an institution that is the CT equivalent of the Cal State system. The problem we encounter with some high-powered recent graduates at the AHA interview stage is that some of them, frankly, act like they’re doing us a favor by granting us an audience. So, if the guy from Chicago came to your campus and acted like that, this type of behavior would nullify the letter from the AHA president. Also, teaching experience is an important factor — how much did the fresh Chicago graduate have compared to the community college professor? More importantly, how much experience did he have teaching state university students? Was he willing to teach the 4/4 load you typically have in the CSU system?

    The Latina is another story — your story suggests not only race and sex discrimination but age discrimination as well.


  13. I think its also important to consider the position of the spousal hire. No matter how qualified, are you always perceived in the department as a “favor hire”? Do spouses hired as a result of such policies become second class citizens in their departments?

    A tricky business all round, I think.


  14. Rad: On big issues I think you’re right, but on smaller ones I’ve seen some diversity of opinions. (Who wants to go home and talk about department meetings over dinner? Sheesh. Not Historiann!)

    And Geoff–I think KC gives you another way to look at the hiring preferences you saw at your Cal State campus, but I have to say, if indeed they operated the way you say, they’re very unusual. In fact, I think most departments not only don’t privilege adjuncts, especially not those already teaching at the institution, they hold it against them in the event they apply for a tenure-track job. (The attitude is, “well, if you’re really so good, shouldn’t you have been able to get a tenure-track job somewhere else?) In any case, the young man with the glamorous CV is the horse I’d bet on in any of the departments I’ve taught in, over the more connected and/or more experienced candidates. (“Experience” is good, but “middle-aged” is frequently held against candidates, I’m afraid, and there’s age discrimination that’s much more open than race or gender discrimination, I think.)

    But, your comment also presupposes that an advertised national search is a platonic system that ensures that the best overall candidates will naturally rise to the top. It strives to be–and faculty who are honest will try to steer it that way–but there are so many other factors that go into hiring preferences that aren’t fair, but there’s no way around them. (The “best” candidate’s research topic may overlap too much, or not enough, with someone else in the department. The “best” candidate trained with a nemesis of someone in the department. The “best” candidate is an outspoken young woman who is unfairly punished for being confident and competent. The “best” candidate gets to campus and just rubs everyone the wrong way. Etc.) The fact is that there are always so many well-qualified applicants for most academic jobs that departments can seriously have conversations ranking and comparing two or three outstanding people, and talk themselves into believing that candidate X is clearly utterly obviously so completely superior, or that candidate y is obviously notoriously and utterly inferior.

    So, given what I’ve seen as the rather random outcomes of searches (once you get to the finalists, all of whom would have been fine), I see partner/spousal hires of qualified people as just another random variable introduced into an imperfect system, not the one practice that introduces unfairness. (And, in point of fact, they’re not really “a hire of someone the department knows as a favor to someone in the department.” Departments that do them do it as a favor to themselves, not to an individual faculty member, to try to build some stability into the department, and avoid having to do yet another search in those fields. Departments may like to feel generous and that they’re really loving, caring, individuals, but make no mistake: if there’s nothing in it for the department, it won’t happen.)


  15. ej–good questions. I think the answers depend on the job performance of the person hired, and on the attitude of the hiring department. If ze has a record that’s comparable or better than all of the other people hired around the same time through national searches, and they get tenure, then the conditions for the hire (if there were lingering doubts or resentments) are forgotten. If ze doesn’t have a comparable record, that might very well engender bad feelings and misgivings. (I’m just hypothesizing, since I’ve never seen the latter case.)

    One thing we haven’t considered is what happens when a partner hire doesn’t get tenure…


  16. Geoff’s example about the hire could go in both directions, depending on the place and context. But I want to second his main point, which is that these are connection hires. And somebody should study the demographics of spousal hires. I suspect they disproportionately benefit certain people, and I wouldn’t be surprised if men get a good share.


  17. Rad–what do you mean by “certain people?” (I’m not challenging you–I just don’t know what you’re getting at.) I think men get a good number, but women probably get the majority (among heteros, anyway), because of the tendency of even feminist women to choose male partners who are just a few years older, a few inches taller, and therefore probably a few years ahead in his career. (This is a hunch based on anecdotal evidence and personal observations, not a real data point!) It would be an interesting think to collect data on, but I don’t know of any organization who would be interested enough to collect the information.


  18. It’s interesting to read this in conjunction with Dean Dad’s post on academics and parenthood. I like to think spousal hires make sense, for the humans, but I see all the objections. I began my career in a department with two bitterly divorced people, which was a little crazy making at times.

    A lot of this depends on whether the spousal hire becomes an extra line (BONUS!) or whether that person limits future hiring choices. In a small department, spousal hires are trickier than in big ones. (I’ve noticed that some of both the Ohio & Maine SLACs do joint ads to show that they will collectively accommodate spousal hires.


  19. Susan–the joint ad thing is a surprisingly sensible thing to do, especially if you want to recruit people to work in SLACs in Maine and Ohio! (DISCLAIMER: Historiann was born in Ohio and her first tt job was there, and a beloved family member is from Maine, so I’m not slagging those states. I’m just suggesting that in some of those quiet, out-of-the way towns in ME and OH that tend to be where SLACs are located, it might be a good thing to bring your own partner because your opportunities as a single person might be very limited there.)

    I think you’re right that it’s up to the Dean really to make a spousal/partner hire palatable, and the only way that happens is to make it a BONUS hire. (And I don’t envy you your time in a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” department, that’s for sure! I’ve worked in some f’d up departments, but that’s never been an issue–yet, anyway.)


  20. My general principle is that a university is not a meritocracy and never has been. Rather, the goal of the modern university is to construct the most invigorating* community they can put together. If I really believe in that principle, I’m obliged to also believe in spousal hires, legacy admits, affirmative action admits, etc—whatever seems necessary to construct that community in the best way. And professors who stay seem pretty essential.

    I don’t have a spouse, by the way, and I’m as tempted by the new and exciting candidates as anyone. But the main thing I see happening right now is that partner hires become one of the main battlegrounds for factionalism and power struggles within the university, and that doesn’t seem right, to let that play out on people’s lives like that.

    More overt support of spousal hires might improve the situation. E.g., schools within commuting distance get together to support each other’s partner hires. The dean budgets X amount of money a year for bonus partner positions, perhaps as multi-year contracts rather than tenure-track positions.

    *I’m not sure “invigorating” is the best word. I want something that means “encourages growth and development”, but “nurturing” doesn’t carry the sense of challenge I’d want….


  21. I like your vision of the “invigorating* community,” and you’re right to point out that there are other ways to jump the line for faculty jobs than the spousal or partner hire way. Sadly, I also take your point about the factionalism and power struggles you write about, too.

    I think that larger regional plan exists in the Research Triangle in N.C., or at least I’ve heard rumors of UNC and Duke collaborating to accomodate a spouse at the other institution when possible. And no one challenges the reputation of UNC or Duke now, do they? (Unless, maybe this is like the unicorn, a fanciful beast?)


  22. Historiann, I appreciate your comments as always, and as an outsider in this discussion, I defer to the insiders’ abilities to better appreciate the complexities of a given situation. As for my own points, although I may have once believed that a search was (as you put it) a platonic system that allows the best candidates to rise to the top, I certainly haven’t thought about it like that in a long time. The opportunity to be involved (marginally) in a search as an undergraduate was fascinating — and unfortunately, not encouraging to me at the time. I hope I didn’t convey that a spousal hire was “the one practice that introduces unfairness.” The way I was conceptualizing it was as a subset of connections in hiring. Connections that don’t favor us we tend to see in a negative light, but when they assist us or our allies, we don’t think of them as all that bad. For example, a relative UC law professor boasted of working “the old girls club” when she scored an internship for her daughter at a prestigious Bay Area law firm. Finally, I also hope I didn’t portray meritocracy as an ideal for the university or anywhere else — there are of course many other considerations in any career field.

    What a good conversation! It’s been fun to listen in on it.


  23. Just a random thought — is the issue of spousal hires in part a reflection of the fact that nowadays a husband is just as or even more likely to be the “trailing spouse” in an academic couple? In some cases, is there some unconscious sympathy for the guy whose career is being “stalled” by a more successful wife? Are search committees just as concerned when the wife is the trailing spouse? Do they care as much about single-sex couples?


  24. Geoff–no worries! Your points were great. (Most of us wish our undergraduate colleges and universities were as loyal to “their grads” in favoring them with employment as yours was!) I guess the upshot of this discussion is exactly as you say, “Connections that don’t favor us we tend to see in a negative light, but when they assist us or our allies, we don’t think of them as all that bad.” We can always think up reasons why hiring preferences are legitimate in some circumstances, and illegitimate in others. It’s not to say that we’re always only self-interested or interested in assisting cronies, it’s just that we can see the virtues of helping out some job candidates (ourselves, or friends) whereas when we don’t know the people involved, we’re not so much in favor of special considerations.

    As you (and others) can probably tell, I’m mostly pro-partner/spousal hires, because I’m in favor of institutions being humane and generous to people who already work there. (However, I think the points about de facto discrimination against non-hetero and non-partnered people are worthy of serious review.) I guess, given that a partner/spouse is qualified (of course), I’d err on the side of helping out a family than on the side of being “fair” to a generic pool of other applicants. However, as the comments above suggest, these decisions sometimes come to have multiple and various consequences–but then, so do so-called “regular” hires, I suppose.

    In the end, I don’t think that any of us who score tenure-track jobs are necessarily “better” than those who don’t, we’re just luckier in that the right job popped up at the right time, and we were ready for it.


  25. KC–you and I were writing at the same time–great questions. In the discussion above, Rad wondered who exactly was benefiting from spousal/partner hires. Well, at the Berks (in only 2 weeks!!) some of the data-collectors and crunchers for the AHA will be on the opening plenary session Thursday night–I’ll try to ask them if they have any information about that vis-a-vis History departments. I don’t know if the AAUP or any other all-disciplinary organization would collect that information–the AHA seems to be the best source for employment trends in our discipline.


  26. Historiann — sorry it has taken me so long to get back to this thread. Since you asked…”certain” was my euphemism for “white” — although as I pointed out, men probably get a good number so I don’t want to imply that white women are benefitting disproportionately. I actually saw something recently in which a white man invoked his wife’s ethnicity to try to pressure a university into giving him something. e.g. you need to give me X because you should be trying to retain her for ethnic diversity. But I’m in the anecdotal realm, and it would be interesting to see demographically who is benefitting from partner hires.


  27. Thanks for clarifying, Rad–no problems on your delay, because it’s summer after all! (At least for those not on an administrative schedule…) I’m sure you’re right, if only because the vast majority of college and university faculty are white. I will see if I can buttonhole the AHA people to ask about this at the Berks.


  28. Well, those of us on the quarter system are still in school for a couple of weeks…ok, one more question raised by your post. I wonder how academics compare to other professions in how often people partner in the same profession. Again, it strikes me as very common in our racket, and I have started to wonder if the partnering reveals a general freakiness (not freaky in the fun, 70s sense). Does this mean that academics have trouble having relationships with non-academics? If so, what does this say about how we relate/speak to/interact with non-academics?


  29. My guess is that yes–many of us do have trouble with relationships with non-academics (or, should I say, that non-academics have trouble with relationships with us?!) I think people who don’t find a partner by 30 in this profession will have a really hard time after that, because who would 1) bother with us and our freakish world at all if not for affection or obligations won or contracted before we became such bores, and 2) who would move to enable our strange, sad careers? It’s a mystery to me that anyone does, let alone anyone who might have other options in the relationship market! (But thank goodness that there are some suckers out there, eh?)

    Too bad it’s not all freaky in the “fun, 70s sense!”


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