From the Letters to the Editor column in the January 1999 Perspectives

Spousal/Partner Hiring

Douglas Steeples, Faye Getz, and James G. Ryan, January 1999

To the Editor:

My comments about spousal hiring policies originate in nearly 40 years of experience as a faculty member, a department chair, an academic, an executive vice president, an acting president, and a dean.

It is all too easy to inject buzzwords into discussions of this issue and to evade some new realities. Among the buzzwords most apt to stir emotions are "nepotism," "cronyism," and "favoritism," on the one hand and use of terms such as "convoluted, obscure reasoning" or "equity" and "fairness" on the other.

Among the new realities, perhaps the most important is that academic couples are becoming an increasingly common feature of the higher education landscape.

Colleges and universities are not general purpose social service agencies. Their function is not to transform society, although their teaching function may well be to transform students. At the same time, there is no reason why they may not or ought not offer new models of professional life. To compel spousal or other intimate partners to pursue careers at separate institutions simply because they are partners makes no sense. In fact, both may be less productive than would otherwise be the case as a result of such separation. Likewise, a college or university may be the poorer for having to refrain from appointing one partner or the other. Again, a blanket prohibition against bringing both partners to an institution may result in the termination of a relationship. That outcome is surely counter to our professed valuation of family and committed relationships. The bogeyman of nepotism is easily disposed of: make certain that one partner does not supervise (or evaluate the performance of) the other. There could be several advantages to bringing both partners to a department or an institution. These include flexibility&#151they might, for example, prefer to share a single appointment or an appointment and a fraction, leaving both greater time for research, family life, and other activities. At the same time, the employing institution could gain a wider range of talent than a single appointment might normally provide. Finally, our institutions, colleagues, and students might discover that there are nontraditional ways to define faculty appointments, to the advantage of all concerned. Many years ago, I participated as a department chair in the appointment of an outstanding couple to a shared position. Both partners continue to make superb contributions.

Policies ought not prohibit such appointments, and they ought to spell out the rules governing such appointments. We get into trouble when we proceed on an ad hoc basis. Well-crafted policies can assure appropriate attention to issues of equity, quality, performance review, and so on. They can also be an effective means of enriching the life of an academic community. I respectfully suggest that we face an opportunity for constructive action, if we can get past slogans and shibboleths.

—Douglas Steeples
Mercer University

To the Editor:

Amid the handwaving and convoluted reasoning surrounding the spousal hiring debate, one simple issue seems to be overlooked: Discrimination by marital status is ethically and legally wrong. Institutions who stand against discrimination of this type have a better chance of recruiting and retaining highly qualified dual-career couples in academics.

The following points are intended to help separate legitimate concerns from ill-founded prejudgments. For instance, some educators argue that a husband and wife in the same workplace will engage in "bedroom politics." We don't sentence people to prison for what they might do, nor should we deprive them of employment on similar grounds. Parallel objections have been levelled against hiring "too many" women, gays, or people of color. College and university administrations must be wary of all such discrimination (as well as of signs of collusion&#151a vice not limited to husbands and wives) and dedicate resources to protect the quality of its faculty against any assault on fairness and equality.

Along similar lines, central administrations should not assume that individual department heads are willing to police discrimination by marital status. Nor should the employed spouse be the sole guardian of his or her partner's right to fair employment and academic freedom. It is far too easy to silence the unemployed spouse's complaints about discrimination or harassment simply by threatening the employed spouse with denial of tenure, grant support, or promotion. Harassment of one spouse for complaints by the other, as well as discrimination by marital status, are matters that need to be addressed by an identifiable officer of the college or university as a whole, who would be an advocate for fairness and legality, rather than simply another instrument to silence the injured parties.

Finally, faculty spouses and partners have a good claim on affirmative action as a remedy for past discrimination. Female spouses and partners have a special need here: Not only have women suffered sexism and discrimination by marital status at the hands of a predominately male faculty, but a new irony is becoming increasingly apparent. Senior faculty sometimes favor hiring male spouses over female ones, presumably because they think retention of female faculty is more important than retention of male faculty.

Many aspects of spousal and partner hiring are controversial and will remain so. These aspects should not be confused with matters of law and issues of fairness and equality. Dual-career couples should demand written confirmation of an employer's stand against harassment and discrimination, as well as a specific set of remedies and protections should problems arise. Take nothing for granted.

—Faye Getz
Mount Horeb, Wisc.

To the Editor:

No matter how one tries to qualify it, the very consideration of partners discriminates unfairly against persons without partners. Nor does anything in the Perspectives column recognize that half of all heterosexual marriages fail. (I won't even hazard a guess on the mortality of gay and lesbian relationships.) Simply put, a significant portion of relationships are temporary. A head-in-the-sand attitude will not change this fact. Therefore, subsidizing such partnerships is unwise, as well as unfair.

I cast one vote to hold the line on "one person, one job." The best-qualified candidate should receive the job. Certainly there is no shortage of candidates to replace anyone who wants special treatment for a partner. These are my opinions and do not reflect the views of Texas A & M University.

—James G. Ryan
Texas A&M University