Too Many Couples

April 09, 2007

During a recent hiring cycle, I faced the prospect of adding a third married couple to the two we already have in our department.

We are a rather large unit, with approximately 40 tenured and tenure-track faculty members. Even so, because we have no policy or guidelines, I pondered the question of just how many academic couples we could comfortably accommodate from the point of view of good governance.

Neither the affirmative-action guidelines of our university nor the policies of the Modern Language Association, our professional organization, offer any opinion on this matter -- beyond the prohibition against asking candidates about their spousal or partner situations.

I am offering my ad hoc reflections on the subject here, in the hope of getting an honest dialogue started and seeing some reasonable guidelines eventually created by one organization or another as a result.

The primary problem with a single department hiring both members of an academic couple is that the department can't know in advance how the two will function as a pair. Will they always vote together and voice the same views during meetings? For the purposes of governance, would we be hiring two individuals or two individuals acting as one?

Moreover, even if the partners are hired by two different programs (our department has many programs) so their vote in any one program would be limited, those two programs' meetings could no longer be considered confidential once a couple was on board. The opinions expressed in either program's meetings would potentially become common knowledge in the second program.

Members of academic couples also might not be full supporters of the needs of their own programs. Rather, they might be more inclined to urge compromise on controversial issues that affect their own and their partner's programs. On the one hand, that could be a positive thing since it might introduce moderation on tough issues. On the other hand, someone who seems too willing to compromise could be viewed by fellow members of a program as disloyal.

The problems created by hiring couples seem real and substantial: couples voting together on tenure cases and other departmental issues, sharing information between programs, and diluting or otherwise altering one another's positions.

Is it really fair to a tenure candidate, for instance, to have two separate tenured people voting as one, especially if the candidate has managed somehow to offend one of the members of the couple? And is it a good idea for a small program to hire even one likeminded couple, when it means the couple would constitute an automatic faction?

My inclination is to say that hiring more than one or two couples is problematic in most departments. What policies should we follow to avoid getting into that predicament? The lack of honesty that currently exists in our discussions about that question is striking. Whether you agree with what I am about to write or not, what follows is at least a sincere attempt at truthfulness.

First some gratuitous but time-tested advice: Love is grand but if you are a graduate student, don't marry or become attached to someone in your field. It's a mistake that is going to make your job search much more difficult than it already will be. It can cost you a job you really want, and thus put a strain on the marriage/relationship as well as on the job search.

If you do get involved with someone in your field, realize that doing so is your own choice and that no one else -- and certainly not a hiring department -- can be made responsible for it. Live with the consequences and don't cry foul if you can't find a tenure-track job near your partner's.

Now let's move to some possible solutions, each of which has its own intricacies.

Speak Up Sooner

Federal law says that hiring departments are not allowed to ask candidates about their marital or relationship status. That means most candidates are able to withhold such personal information until an offer is made. Then they raise the stakes by asking the institution to accommodate their spouse or partner.

That is unfair to departments that go through the time and expense of a lengthy selection process only to find out that not only one hire but two will be necessary. It would help to be told about this as soon as possible during a search. The need for an additional spousal or partner hire will not necessarily rule out a top candidate but the choice has to be the department's, not the candidate's. Only the department knows how many positions it can legitimately ask the dean for, as well as how many couples it can accommodate.

Affirmative-action guidelines should be changed to require a candidate needing a spousal or partner hire to say so in the application letter or during the initial interview. It is very poor practice, as some candidates have done, to take off a wedding ring or to otherwise mislead the hiring department into thinking that a candidate is single until the moment an offer is made.

The Best We Can Do

Unless the university has a specific spousal-hiring policy in place, the best a hiring department can usually do after making an offer is to give the candidate's partner a one-year job, either as an instructor or as a visiting professor. My department, for example, can't come up with another tenure-track position on such short notice.

Moreover, the department shouldn't feel in any way obligated to promise that it will secure a tenure-track position for the candidate's partner, except in very unusual cases where that person fits a specific departmental need.

Couples should therefore realize that a tenure-track job and a one-year visiting position are likely to be the best package they will be offered.

Lingering Questions

Things are a little clearer when a university has a spousal-hiring policy. The way such a policy usually works is that the administration will give a department a "free" additional position if it will consider hiring the spouse of the main candidate. The department may thus avoid all of the usual affirmative-action search regulations and difficulties, and get an extra position to boot.

But even with such a policy, the complication, once again, is when both partners are in the same field. The question remains: How many married couples can a single department happily accommodate?

And there is always the issue of what happens if the couple splits up. The presence of an embittered former husband and wife, or former partners, does not make for collegial relations and a happy department. What effect might two or three such former couples, then, have on a department?

Also, is the additional spousal position really "free" or will it come out of the department's hide next year when the department mysteriously receives money for only two searches, and not for the three it had requested.

What About Unmarried Partners?

Should there be policies for unmarried partners similar to those for married couples? Does a department owe a candidate's boyfriend or girlfriend a tenure-track job? A visiting or adjunct position can be provided if it will make the move easier and the department badly wants the candidate.

But the probability of a break-up is much higher in the case of an unmarried couple than in the case of married couples, and so the department is taking a risk should it offer a tenure-track job to a member of an unmarried couple.

Beyond that, there remains the practical issue of how many such dual positions the university could offer before it was seriously affected economically, as well as the abiding moral issue of why a partner or spouse should be given a job in place of a person who would succeed in a national search strictly on his or her own merits.

Legal Matters

Some states, like mine, have anti-nepotism laws. According to such laws, in order to avoid favoritism and unfairness, members of married couples must recuse themselves from a decision or situation involving the other member of the couple. That includes promotion and tenure decisions but also, possibly, curricular decisions.

Those laws should also require members of unmarried couples to recuse themselves in such situations, for precisely the same reasons that married couples are required to do so. But I have yet to see a nepotism law that covers unmarried couples as well as spouses.

Although I have focused mainly on the problems they create, academic couples may have some positive effects on departments. Couples -- especially married couples -- can help the stability of a department. Since they can't move very easily or at all, they are more likely to stay in the department longer than single professors. If a department has a program in which there is constant turnover, hiring a married couple may be an ideal way to halt the turnover.

Moreover, if both members of the married couple have good records of research, teaching, and service, then the department has gained two strong people.

If, on the other hand, one member of a couple is more talented or diligent in publishing, teaching, or service than the other, that raises an additional and unpleasant issue in terms of performance evaluations: Can a department head give widely disparate evaluations to both partners without causing an extra and entirely unneeded morale problem? One disgruntled member of a couple can persuade the other not to cooperate with the department, or can dampen the other member's enthusiasm.

Based on all of those considerations, positive and negative, my view is that one or two academic couples (hired in different subfields) is the maximum that most medium-to-large departments can fruitfully accommodate. Depending on their circumstances, smaller departments or a single program may not be able to function properly with even one couple.

My other conclusion is that we need to discuss these questions openly and honestly. We need our professional societies, governmental agencies, or university leaders to come up with reasonable guidelines. Departments should not be forced to confront this issue on the spur of the moment during a search, when they already have enough decisions to make.

Joseph Kay is the pseudonym of the chairman of an English department at a Southern university.