Repost: Are spousal hires a tool for faculty retention?

Nov 14 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

First posted a couple of years ago, it's that time of year again!

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.

28 responses so far

  • Joshua King says:

    Show some data that they actually promote retention. Even if they do retain one faculty member that you want, what if you also get another that you don't? This is the case that I've seen most commonly. The spousal hire is OK or mediocre. The star gets tenure and everyone loves that. The spousal hire should never get tenure, but they are usually more or less guaranteed tenure, get tenure, and nobody is happy with that. Furthermore, I have seen two examples of this that involved different departments. The star was hired in one department, got tenure, and everyone was happy. The spousal hire was awful in a different department, had no business being hired or getting tenure, but got both, and everyone in the other department was unhappy. I haven't seen a lot of evidence that spousal hires are a good thing.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I'll match your anecdata with the fact that I have seen three cases recently where the "trailing" spouse has turned out to be the more successful of the pair, and by good measure. I'm not sure comparing low n cases is all that useful for the big picture.

  • Joshua King says:

    Okay, but what about retention? How can you verify that retention is the outcome? That is your original question and often it is used as part of the justification for spousal hires. My opinion is that it should be more accurately labeled simply as a negotiating tool as there is little evidence to suggest that "retention" is the actual outcome. As you say, fairness is not really what this is all about.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Because I know, specifically in two of the cases, that the couple would have moved if one or the other did not get tenure/hired. In those cases, and probably many, the loss of faculty would have been a direct result of refusing the spousal hire. I also know of several other cases recently of people moving from a perfectly good job (lacking spousal hire) to a different institution that also hired their spouse.

  • Joshua King says:

    Did the people who were "retained" all have offers? And for those that did move, supposedly because they didn't get their way originally (a spousal hire), if they did have spousal hire in the first place would they have not moved? In either case, "retention" is a determination that is made in hindsight. I would still prefer to label it as a negotiating tool that Universities or employees use according to their own situation. Attrition and turnover occurs for many reasons, perceived snubs about spousal support are just one category. Ask a post-doc in their 6th year about how they feel about spousal hires. Then ask a "superstar" with 5 offers on the table. I assure you will get different views. From a strict hiring and firing standpoint, they are inappropriate (unless the search is funded for two candidates and both candidates stand entirely on their own). Which is why they should be described as a negotiating tool, not justified as a "retention" tool in hindsight.

  • I went to a small liberal arts college in a cornfield. Frequently spousal hires were the only way to get faculty at all - the nearest town had a population of 10,000 at the time, and the nearest city with employment was an hour away. I don't know what effect it had on retention in general - though I know of at least two people who quit their tenured jobs because their spouses could not find work in the area.

  • Natalie says:

    I'm all for spousal hires, and I don't think they're unfair at all.

    In my experience, trailing spouses RARELY get "coveted" positions. Instead, they are offered lower prestige positions (e.g., instructorships rather than professorships, which means they teach every semester and have little or no time to pursue their own research; or administrative positions rather than professorships) and at lower pay. These spouses SACRIFICE to support their "leading career" partners by forfeiting their own career ambitions.

    These spousal hires are often made in lieu of a higher salary for the leading career spouse, which is why I think they're fair.

  • Kati says:

    As far as hiring and retention are concerned, I know from first-hand experience that spousal hires are successful in getting highly sought-after professors into departments they wouldn't otherwise consider.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    These spousal hires are often made in lieu of a higher salary for the leading career spouse, which is why I think they're fair.

    IME, spousal hires are brought in just like any regular tt hire. Of the four I know details of, only one had to sacrifice any start-up funds because of the situation and that was years ago under a different admin than exists there now.

  • Bashir says:

    Ask a post-doc in their 6th year about how they feel about spousal hires. Then ask a "superstar" with 5 offers on the table. I assure you will get different views.

    You could say something similar about any potential factor in hiring. Glamor pubs. Pedigree. Research in a hot area. Etc etc etc.

  • Andrea says:

    I'd be curious to know the statistics on retention and the success of the spouse (#publications, teaching awards etc.) or some metric to verify they were a good investment for the university. Personally, I have seen spousal hires that brought great faculty as well as mediocre faculty, so I believe there is a mix. I have even seen a case at one university I was at where the spouses moved on to greener pastures after using the university as a stepping stone. The university lost millions on that investment. Yes, all anecdotal, so some real stats would be interesting to see.

    I do remember just finishing up my Ph.D. as a single person, and seeing a flurry of spousal hires at my institution. The only thing I thought was unfair was that faculty positions were being created for the spouse, so there was no chance for other candidates to compete for the position. Competition is supposed to increase the odds of hiring a strong candidate, and this was not done with the spousal hires at the time. I just felt like my chances of competing for any TT position would be very limited if spousal hires became more and more common. I do think universities are becoming more transparent with the process, so I don't think the spousal TT positions are just handed out (or at least the perception that they are) any more.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Word Bashir. People like JK are too focused on the alleged "rights" of job applicants and insufficiently focused on the needs of the institution doing the hiring. A curiosity of thinking related to college admissions, no doubt.

  • There was a big study of dual career couples in academia ( . This studies all dual-career couples, not just academic couples, but they did examine the common complaint that in a faculty spousal accommodation, the second hire is often seen as 'less qualified' than their spouse. They found that when examining metrics like number of pubs, that this was not true once gender and stage of the trailing spouse were taken into account. I'll just quietly point out that the trailing spouse tends to be a more junior female and I'll let others draw the dots between societal perceptions of 'quality' and those traits...

  • Joshua King says:

    Nonsense, that is not my position. My position is that it is a negotiating tool for Universities and for potential hires and, for the sake of honesty, it should be described as such. This is what Bashir reiterated, although inadvertently. Justifying it in hindsight as a tool for "retention" is dishonest. Where are the data to make a case in either direction, for or against? It can work or fail in any number of scenarios. The institutions collectively make the decision for or against and these seem to not be data driven, rather, they are perceived need driven. I'm not making an argument for or against, just and argument for more honesty about what is actually going on.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    If by "negotiating tool" you mean "the best way to retain good faculty is to avoid tearing their home life apart", then I'm not sure how you're not arguing both sides here.

    Any hire can work or fail in any number of scenarios, why single out spousal hires?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    And ohbytheway, the data don't agree with the higher failure rate for "trailing spouses", according to Morgan's link.

    Oddly, of the 4 couples I referenced above, it was an even split with regard to which was the trailing spouse.

  • Alex says:

    I don't object to hiring spouses. Far from it. I've seen excellent spousal hires.

    However, if a spouse figures out that they are guaranteed to get tenure because of the other member of the couple, that is a problem. Or, if during annual reviews, reappointments, etc., the department committee feels the need to praise a person no matter how bad they are, because they want the person's spouse to be happy, that is a problem.

    Be as generous as you want to spouses at hiring time, but if you treat them with kid gloves in performance reviews, you're setting yourself up for a long-term problem.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Be as generous as you want to spouses at hiring time, but if you treat them with kid gloves in performance reviews, you're setting yourself up for a long-term problem.

    Agreed, I think they need to be held to the departmental standard.

  • Joshua King says:

    I am arguing both sides: those faculty that can negotiate for them, should; those institutions that want to hire a desirable candidate and can offer a spousal hire, should. I'm not singling out spousal hires - this was your choice of thread topic - and in my experience, people that leave usually do so for other reasons. I don't have a problem at the hiring stage, as I've said, with people using this tool. I agree with Alex, I have a problem with the tenure-granting stage, though. Most of the trailing spouses I've seen in my field have been males (female stars).

  • Alex says:

    So, what do people think of the typical administrator's wife position? You know, the one where she is given a cobbled-together position with some vague title that has her teaching a course here and there, and also doing something with some sort of education/pipeline/outreach program, and she's collaborating on one project with somebody, and nobody really knows what her role is except that she kind of does whatever?

    If she doesn't mind it and the institution has the need, I don't see the harm, but I do kind of feel like it would be more respectful to put her in a "real" position that is better-defined. Either that, or let everybody define their job that flexibly!

  • pyrope says:

    I was (am?) a trailing spouse. We were lucky in that we (collectively) had multiple offers when we were negotiating, and were ultimately able to leverage those into two tt positions at one university. I was on the job market for several years, mainly because it took a long time to find a fit for us both. In that time, I met many 'trailing' spouses - I think because I was pretty open about my own dual career circumstances so people told me theirs. Never once did I look at one of their CVs and think 'how did this person get hired?'. Likewise, I like to think that if you looked at mine you would not suspect a charity case either. Anyway, more anecdotes.

    As to Alex's comment on the typical "wife" who is worthless but paid some salary to presumably do her nails. I've seen that in movies, but never in real life - and the assumption that trophy wives are taking our jobs is rather ridiculous. As is the underlying assumption that only women are deserving of our righteous scorn.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Likewise, I've never seen the scenario suggested by Alex, so I can't comment on that.

  • Alex says:

    First, the pattern I've observed is not typical to academic wives, but rather a subset of administrative wives. Much as political wives seem to be under some sort of obligation to be involved in a charity, a certain subset of administrative wives seem to be under an obligation to be involved in an outreach or pipeline project. Charity work is noble, as are outreach and pipeline projects, but I always considered it a bit unfair to put that obligation on the wife--what if the political wife wants a career? (I'll pause to note that Jill Biden is a laudable exception.) What if the administrative wife would rather be in the lab, or the classroom, or (like her administrator husband) the conference room? I'd be more impressed by the university if they gave her a TT job like anyone else, like they're encouraged to do for the spouses and partners of faculty candidates. And I wonder whether the husband actually supported her career development, or kind of nudged her toward a role that provides him with a photo-op when he needs it.

    When I read a recent announcement of a new hire for a senior administrative role, I got to the part that said "Dr. So-and-So is married to Dr...." and I looked away from the screen and said to my wife (who has a career of her own) "I'll be she's an adjunct professor who runs a community service project." Then I looked back at the screen and, yep, she is. If that is fulfilling work for her, great, but like I said, I'd actually be more impressed by the university if they offered her a TT spot with the same role as anyone else.

    Also, I don't consider them worthless or lazy. Most of the ones that I've observed seem to be pretty hard-working. I'd be more impressed if the school gave them a faculty job. That said, if I envy them anything, their somewhat flexibly-defined role has certain appealing aspects...

  • Alex says:

    BTW, I'm open to the possibility that I only notice this because wives of administrators don't make press releases unless they're doing something to burnish the husband's Broader Impact statement. Otherwise, the people writing these press releases don't consider them worthy of mention.

    I've seen precious few male academics married to female academic administrators, but the one that I know best followed her around in soft money research jobs, a more straightforward academic path. I know of another one who got an endowed chair when his wife got hired to run a research center. It seems that institutions reserve nebulous job titles for wives of administrators who will do something to give their husbands a ready-made photo-op. Men married to female administrators seem to be put on more traditional, independent academic tracks.

  • Viola says:

    One thing that I don't see mentioned very often is that spousal hires can be an awesome way for departments to get two hires that they actually want. As in, the department asked for five faculty lines, the administration gave them one, but they are willing to go up to two for a spousal hire situation. It's unfortunate that the departments can't just do this by saying "We love our top two candidates!", but they are often really struggling to get enough faculty to meet their needs, and spousal hires can be a way to do it. This is definitely true in a lot of biology departments, anyway, where enrollment has been expanding over the last few years and hires haven't kept up.

  • DJMH says:

    Frankly I'd love to see more spousal hires who do least it's a distinct pathway. In my dept, all the faculty wives are lab managers or glorified postdocs in their husbands' labs. Waaay more depressing.

    But back to the original topic, I know of at least one department that was explicitly trying to hire academic couples, on the theory that it helped their retention to the rather rural campus that is poorly served by transit. So, that is more evidence that departments don't just use "retention" as a post hoc justification for a crappy spousal hire, but are actually engaging in it on purpose.

  • We just lost a spousal hire to the top program in her field. We'd developed an entire program and specialty around her. It was a great 8 years that we had her! This time around (at her new university) her husband is the spousal hire.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Being older than most of you, Eli is going to tell you about how the game was played in yesteryear. The wife (almost always) became the lab manager and permadoc in the husband's lab. This actually, unfair as it was, often worked for obvious reasons.

    Now today, it obviously would not, but the clever university would figure out how to handle this on a more equitable basis (e.g. we are hiring you as a team, the salary is X the startup is Y, you both have teaching responsibilities, say 1.5x the normal, and you can spend a bit more time at home with the kids and cover for each other on travel. Tenure will be joint but if you get divorced or interests diverge we will discuss the matter)

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