Are spousal hires a tool for faculty retention?

Sep 17 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers], LifeTrajectories

The subject of spousal hires is always a contentious issue. There are those who rankle at the thought (unfounded assumption in many cases) that an individual might get a coveted tt position simply because their spouse was desirable for an advertised position. IME, the spouse is often as or more qualified for a faculty position, but the sheer ratio of available positions to qualified people out there has meant either that their spouse found a job first or that their spouse landed an offer in a more desirable location. There are, of course, a hundred permutations of how this can work, but my point is that I have rarely seen an instance where the "trailing spouse" is inept or lacks the experience to get hired, but is anyway*.

Like it or not, the nature and rarity of tt jobs means that spousal hires are going to be an issue and there are numerous blogosphere electrons dedicated to the discussion of whether spousal hires are "fair". I am less interested in that question** and more interested in whether, from a university standpoint, spousal hires can and should be used to increase faculty retention?

I think this is particularly plausible for mid-tier universities, and here's why. Given the choice between two offers, a single position at a top-tier university and a position for both spouses at a mid-tier university with some potential, I would guess that a decent number of couples would chose the latter. From the university's perspective, they're getting at least one and possibly two highly competitive faculty members who are going to increase the university research profile. After a while, this is going to pay dividends.

Let's face it, long distance relationships or long commutes for one or both partners sucks. You're never going to get the most out of a faculty member if their home life is being made more difficult because their spouse is either un- or under-employed, or works in a distant place. By refusing a spousal hire, a university is basically getting less than full effort from someone they just hired AND upping the potential of that person leaving for a better situation that includes their spouse. I am not advocating for departments having spousal hires foisted upon them for the sake of the university***, but if done correctly and as a concerted effort, it might be a very effective strategy.

*I'm sure some readers will weigh in with anecdotes refuting this.
** For the record, my opinion is that barring a beach of ethical practices, candidates don't get to decide what is "fair" in the hiring process.
*** The university would obviously have to be willing to commit resources to this strategy and the ever-present issue of "space" would not be an easy one to solve. But for the creative administration, perhaps this could work.

20 responses so far

  • Pascale says:

    This can be an issue for big universities in small towns, like many of the land grant institutions in the midwest. Often, that university is the only game in town- unlike, say, Boston where there are multiple institutes of higher learning with academic medical centers!

    I have seen a couple of times that a less-than-stellar spouse had a position created for them, but I have seen a lot of really great "bonus hires" as well.

    An example from waaaaay close to home:
    A few years back, I was recruited to my current position. My husband had been in private practice, but he wanted to be in academia. The place I was going didn't really need another doc in his specialty at that moment, but they had some faculty looking at retirement in a couple of years so they brought him in. My spouse ended up doing all sorts of cool stuff, and is now being recruited elsewhere (with buckets of $$$). This time I'm the trailing spouse (a term that makes be feel really valuable), but it turns out I am probably a good fit for some of their other needs. And the only way they get my husband is to find me a position.

  • drugmonkey says:

    For the record, my opinion is that barring a beach of ethical practices, candidates don’t get to decide what is “fair” in the hiring process.

    This. I think there was much not-gettin-this-point on the prior discussion at DM and at the CHE article that triggered my post.

    Thinking that there is something resembling "objectively the best candidate" is nonsense. There are many candidates that may differentially fulfill the different categories of a University's "interest" in a new hire.

  • CoR says:

    Glad you bring this back up. I've been thinking a bit lately about the prevalence of 'institutional crazy' or biases that people might pick up certain places -- a trailing spouse wouldn't be as 'good' as the original hire, or even the biased opinions against women, but not men, that are in academics and have kids. Like, are these biases in the frickin water in some depts? Do relatively normal people lose their common sense somewhere along the way?? But I might be getting a little ranty here.

  • Joseph says:

    In the modern environment, I notice that there are always a lot of canddiates who are excellent in any jopb search. At some point in the hiring process there is always going to be a need to compare two candidates who differ on a host of factors and trade-offs will have to be made. I'm actually a mild opponent of spousal hiring but I can see that there are certainly cases wherehring a couple would be the ideal decision. This is likely maximized in the case PLS brings up where both candidates could have had jobs one tier up but prefer jobs in the same place.

  • yvr_fca_osl says:

    Since you are expecting a wave of anecdotes about underqualified spouses that a department was stuck with for years, I'll weigh in on the other end. I just got a job a year ago in a humanities field that had some sort of apocalyptic implosion when the general economy tanked. One school made me an offer that included an offer for my husband when he finishes his postdoc. All the other schools had emphasized that they would be unable to do this, but as soon as that first offer came in, three other offers were bumped up to include the same. And what was great was how excited each department was about the prospect of getting me AND him at the same time. There was no resentment about underqualified hires being foisted on them, at any of the four departments. Instead, everyone thought it was great that extra expertise was coming in. In some fields, spousal hires are really starting to be seen as some kind of two-for-one special - the department has essentially received extra permanent funding from the university.

  • Namnezia says:

    I think that as far as a dept. is concerned a spousal hire is a good thing. I think the trouble is convincing the university administration of this. I know of a case where a department lost a really good and interested job candidate to another school because their university would not support hiring her equally talented and interested spouse, despite the department arguing that having both hires would be a good thing.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    The flip side of that, of course, is that some departments are loath to give up a faculty line (and the associated space) for someone doing research in a field they don't get to choose.

  • GMP says:

    spousal hires can and should be used to increase faculty retention?

    Abso-fucken-lutely. Outside of academia, help with spousal placement is a normal thing. I don't see why academia can't do the same.

    A colleague of mine has a wife who was not hired when he was hired (both sought TT). Instead, she took a faculty job at a lesser institution 2 hours away and they had a difficult commuting situation for 4 years -- at which time the wife, who kicked serious research ass at her place got early tenure. She has now been successfully recruited to join her husband, and I think one would now consider her to be the star of the couple. They endured 4 very difficult years though, I would say needlessly, and some resentment built up there...

    I am a beneficiary of a spousal hire, but my husband is not a faculty (he has a Master's degree); he has a wonderful job, in which he teaches a couple of very specialized lab courses and the rest of his time is permanent research staff with a large research center.

    I would not have taken this job if it hadn’t come with a position for my husband.

    My husband's job was one of the strongest recruitment tools when I was weighing different offers and is now an incredibly effective retention tool, because I cannot imagine him loving another job more. I have offers to go to more highly ranked schools, but considering how much my husband loves his job here and how well the whole family is settled, it is unlikely I will move soon (if ever).

    So yes, a happy spouse means a happy and productive faculty. I know several star faculty who could go anywhere they want, but remain here because of the family's happiness.

  • JaneB says:

    I can see the principle and purpose of spousal hires, but am mildly opposed to them. Partly because my current department alone ahs one spousal pair where one person is weak, a poor fit for the departmental needs (e.g. cannot teach any of the basic classes in our degrees, so gets less teaching/plum teaching tasks like honours modules and independent studies) AND is a stirrer, one spousal pair where both are excellent scientists and decent teachers, but they act as a single block for any decision, you can't disagree with one without the other getting mad with you, any issue with one, even just team teaching with one, becomes a case of working with them both, and only one of them will ever do any out of hours duty (which,OK, may be family friendly, but it is still a pain when drawing up rotas etc.), and one where we really did get one for the price of two - only one of them ever attends a meeting, even vital stuff like exam boards, they refuse to live near the university and amazingly frequently are unable to travel to work due to weather, and they also act as a complete voting block and whine magnifier... so I'm not impressed with the examples I've seen in practice.

    So, there's some anecdote!

  • Dr. O says:

    I've wondered about this lately, because I've been told by a couple of people to not mention my husband even when negotiating faculty positions (if I ever even get to that stage). He's a master's in a different field, so it wouldn't fit into the scenario that PLS is talking about. But at some of the places I'm applying to, where the University is the only game in town, I'd probably never be able to take a job without some job assistance for him. When did you choose to bring this up to your institution during the job search?

  • kt says:

    I am glad someone finally wrote this post. I have seen spousal hires used as excellent retention tools: you get a good person and a great person, or a great person and a great person, and once you get those kids in the local schools they're not going to be moving for a while!! It's especially good if you can catch people at the start of their careers.

  • Zuska says:

    Don't mate with other academics. Choose a partner with more broadly employable skills, outside academia. That way, when your institution starts furloughing and penny-pinching, maybe you can live off the mate's income.

  • GMP says:

    Dr. O, at every single interview, multiple people asked me about my husband (I wear a wedding ring) which enabled me to mention what he does and what type of job he would want. I think a lot of people were relieved that he was not looking for a TT position, I think non-TT are easier to find. I don't think you should hide your family situation -- it is what it is and the place that wants to hire you will want to make you happy and keep you, and that involves spousal placement. I don't think a place would not give me the offer just because I mentioned my husband (or maybe I am deluded). If you want to talk more, perhaps we can do it via email?

  • FCS says:

    "Dr. O, at every single interview, multiple people asked me about my husband (I wear a wedding ring)"

    Every single interview?? Ugh. That's so many kinds of illegal. (I know, I'm naive). Did they ask you about your kids also?

    I wear a wedding ring, but I would never want people asking about it or any other aspects of my family life in a formal interview situation. After I'm hired, sure, I'd be happy to discuss it. But before then, I just don't view it as relevant to whether I'm employable, nor do I see it as a benefit to my candidacy.

  • S Mukherjee says:

    Hah Zuska, your comment made me smile! My husband and I both have PhD's, and both of us are now in non-academic jobs. I left academia soon after my first post-doctoral post (where I worked in a different country from my husband), and he did the same a couple of years later. It is a choice that works for us, as a couple, since we now live together and have sufficient choice of possible employers. One of the reasons I left an academic career (apart from knowing that I really wasn't cut out for it), was my observation of other academic couples having to live apart for years and having quite stressful personal lives because of it.

  • I think that spousals are definitely a faculty retention tool. We have one couple in the department, and I don't know who the trailing spouse was--both are great faculty members. We have one person whose spouse was recently hired by another department, which prevented her from leaving to be with him. He is also a rockstar, and will be paid 1/3 by our dept, 1/3 by the Dean, and 1/3 by the hiring department until tenure.

    We have one faculty member whose wife and kid live really, really far away. He is here as little as possible (quite understandably), and we are sure to lose him when the economic apocalypse eases a bit (his wife is not an academic, so spousal issues are not just about TT positions). It is fairly straightforward to find a non-academic position for a spouse at Prodigal U. I think this is right and good for the university. I agree with DM that there is not "best" candidate. Only people above the bar and below the bar. Once people are above the qualification bar, what does it matter how they are recruited to their jobs?

  • GMP says:

    FCS, no one actually asked about the kids. However, at the first interview it actually came up in casual conversation and I said that I had a preschooler. My host went "Wow!" and said that having a kid makes my CV even more impressive (apparently, as achieved under the stress of childrearing). My impression is that, if you come to a faculty position with a good research record and a kid (or kids) in tow, it is in fact assurance that you can achieve high performance and have a family. So I in subsequent interviews I did mention my kid and I don't think it hurt me.

    My attitude is: people are curious about your family status, and even if they don't ask many want to know, if for no other reason but to let you know what a wonderful and family friendly place they have. I think this holds for assistant prof men as well, as they too overwhelmingly have working wives. So I would volunteer the information about my husband and my child as it seemed appropriate, i.e. as it came up in a conversation. I think going out of my way to avoid it would have been much worse.

  • Arlenna says:

    Ugh, I am so behind.

    My institution has been making some motions to possibly do a spousal hire for my husband as a pre-emptive retention move for me. He's not an academic, though, so it is complicated. But so far, I've brought in more money in my first two years than most junior faculty, plus I am the only young woman in the dept. for many years, so they have reasons to try to make sure I stay.

  • Pamiam says:

    At my institution I have seen candidate for jobs ask about spousal hires before they receive and offer, after they receive an offer, or after they take the offer. In my opinion, the best time to play the spouse card is after an offer is in hand. I have to tell you, when someone shows up who is interviewing for a job and then starts demanding spousal consideration, this automatically drops them down a notch in my view. Plus then immediately we have to entertain a two-for with the administration. A job in hand means we really want you and so then is the time to negotiate and do it hard. And, yes, it is absolutely illegal to ask about family in any way shape or form if you are the interviewer. Don't do it.

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