The Intricacies of Spousal Hiring

Brian Taylor

May 13, 2010

A year ago, I had a revelation about spousal hiring in academe. At the time, I was dean of faculty in the arts and sciences school at the Johns Hopkins University. It had just named a new president, and as part of his briefing materials, I was drawing up capsule biographies of the most eminent faculty members in my division.

In choosing them, I thought of nothing but their standing in their respective fields. But I naturally included information about their relationship to Johns Hopkins. And when I finished, I realized, to my astonishment, that of the 17 I had picked, no fewer than eight had spouses who also taught at the university—seven of them as tenured professors.

Spousal hiring is often described as a "problem" to be solved, or as "the next great challenge facing universities," to quote "Dual-Career Academic Couples," an influential 2008 report published by Stanford University. But when I looked at my list of names, I realized that for Johns Hopkins, at least, spousal hiring was not a challenge that we needed to face in the future. It was one we had already faced, even though we hadn't quite realized it.

The same is true, I suspect, at many other colleges and universities. That means discussions of spousal hiring, which have long focused on the desirability of the practice, should now turn to the question of how to manage it fairly and effectively.

Recent experiences have shown me just how difficult managing the process can be. During nearly three years in the dean's office at Johns Hopkins, I oversaw scores of faculty-recruitment cases, over a third of them involving some sort of spousal issue. Of course the particulars varied enormously—which is why I didn't fully grasp the overall pattern until my little exercise for the new president. The spouses in question ranged from new Ph.D.'s in the humanities looking for nothing more than an occasional teaching opportunity, to senior scientists hoping for huge start-up packages, thousands of square feet of lab space, and full professorships.

Because of those variations, the university preferred to handle each couple on a case-by-case basis. It had no formal policies or procedures, no special grant money to draw on, and no staff to help out with spousal hires, except for a small office buried in the recesses of the human-resources bureaucracy. (The office kept such a low profile that some of my counterparts in other divisions did not even know of its existence.) At the time, I thought that an ad hoc approach was appropriate, and that we did a good job of handling the issue over all. In retrospect I am not so sure.

I should confess that spousal hiring is an issue that I have faced in a personal context as well. Like 36 percent of American academics (according to the Stanford report), I myself am half of an academic couple. A historian of France by training, I met and married my wife, an immunologist, when I was an assistant professor and she was a postdoc at the same institution.

Since then she has switched jobs three times, and I have done so twice. We have managed, at each turn, to get good positions at different institutions within reasonable daily commuting distance. But we know we have been ridiculously fortunate. And even so, my wife made the sacrifice of looking for jobs only where there might be opportunities for someone in my small, specialized field. When the most recent opportunities arose, we did, in fact, engage in protracted negotiations for a spousal hire, although we didn't end up making use of one.

My experience in the dean's office confirmed my impressions as to the need for spousal hiring. Johns Hopkins simply could not have built its faculty without a willingness to create positions for spouses and partners.

In case after case, that willingness was, by far, the single most important factor in recruitment. We could increase a salary offer by tens of thousands of dollars a year; provide lavish research accounts; promise a scandalous number of sabbatical leaves—none of it mattered if it meant that a candidate still faced the prospect of a long-distance commute or a major professional sacrifice by a spouse.

Hiring spouses brought other, less obvious benefits as well. At small universities like Johns Hopkins, departments are often terribly resistant to move into new fields, for fear of weakening what they see as their always-fragile areas of core expertise. Spousal hiring provided a useful means for opening up those new fields, adding to the university's intellectual diversity. And, of course, it helped significantly with gender diversity as well. The Stanford report cites both of those factors as important reasons for making spousal hires.

I also saw, quite clearly, the costs of not making spousal hires. As a dean, I dealt with many more faculty problems resulting from long-distance commuting marriages than from two professors living and working together on the same campus. Faculty members for whom we had been unable to provide spousal hires sometimes had their primary residence hundreds of miles from the campus and came to teach at Hopkins only two or three days a week. They constantly turned down committee assignments, often ducked out of office hours, and were largely absent from the community. Some of them regularly requested unpaid leaves of absence to spend more time with their partners and children, leaving their colleagues to cover their teaching and service.

Critics of spousal hiring often charge that the practice drags down a university's academic quality, but my experience as dean laid that concern to rest for me. To start with, we never forced a spousal hire on a department or approved the hiring of a spouse who we felt could not pass through the university's rigorous tenure process. After seeing the pattern of spousal hiring in my report to the new president, I drew up a list of the partners in question, wondering if it would look like a rogues' gallery of our weakest professors. In fact, in terms of both stature and productivity, it seemed like an entirely random selection. The Stanford report notes that faculty members recruited as part of spousal-hire arrangements have a level of productivity on par for their institutions.

Yet while my experience as dean left me feeling that spousal hiring is clearly beneficial for colleges and universities, it also convinced me that the purely ad hoc, case-by-case manner in which Johns Hopkins—and many other institutions—have handled it leaves a great deal to be desired.

Most obviously, it has meant that we never even ask if we should be making the same efforts for all of the faculty members we want to recruit, or only for those we want the most. It is worth noting that while eight of the 17 senior superstars I profiled for the new president had spouses on the faculty, a far smaller proportion of assistant professors did. Yet the superstars generally needed spousal hires much less, for they were less likely to have school-aged children, and could more easily afford two homes and long-distance commutes. That was a troubling inequity.

The ad hoc nature of our spousal appointments also increased the resistance of some departments to hiring the partners. In theory, departments had nothing to lose and much to gain from such appointments, since we generally promised that a spousal hire would be an "add on" budget line. But faculty members warned darkly that future deans might not honor the current dean's promises, and raised endless questions and complaints.

One department wanted to bar a prospective spousal hire from taking on graduate advisees. It demanded an additional office for the person, even though it already had several vacant ones, and insisted that its own budget not be charged for office furniture, a new computer, or even stationery for the hire. By the end, I was expecting to get bills for pencils. One distinguished professor told me that while he had nothing against his new colleague, he feared that the hire would single out his department as a "dumping ground."

Not only does such behavior cause dissension within departments, but it also increases the psychological toll on the spouses themselves. People hired in such deals naturally find it hard not to ask if they really deserved the job. They wonder if their new colleagues resent them. They worry about receiving the same degree of institutional support as someone hired in a regular search.

In my experience, the concerns on both sides tend to dissipate after a few years. If a new faculty member pitches in, does the proper share of teaching and service, and proves an interesting, productive scholar, then quite soon colleagues generally forget the circumstances under which he or she was hired. But the more resentment that is expressed at the start, the harder it is for the process of acceptance to take place.

There is no way to smooth over all the potential difficulties involved with spousal hiring. But I feel strongly that formal policies and procedures can help, having worked without them. Even a simple statement by university leaders that they support the practice of spousal hiring, and that individual departments are expected to cooperate where possible, could have eased some of the tensions I experienced as dean.

Making money available is important as well. Ideally an institution might have a number of floating budget lines dedicated to spousal hiring—helping to relieve worries about decanal treachery. But even a smaller pot of money that a dean can draw on would be of use.

And, wherever possible, a senior administrator should be formally responsible for the issue. He or she can act as a broker for all potential candidates who might need a job for a spouse, helping to ensure equity between new Ph.D.'s and senior superstars. A senior administrator could also, just as important, act as an advocate for spouses after they are hired, ensure proper mentoring, and guard against the sorts of slights that can easily poison the environment.

Such steps will not solve all the problems that come with spousal hires. But in an academic universe where most universities have accepted the need for the practice—even if they don't fully realize it—it is precisely that sort of streamlining, and help around the edges, that now matters the most.

David A. Bell, formerly dean of faculty in the arts and sciences school at the Johns Hopkins University, is now a professor of history at Princeton University.