Prism Magazine - Novmber 2001
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Take Me, Take my Spouse

- By Margaret Mannix

Fortunately, for married academicians—and others in long-term relationships—a growing number of colleges and universities are addressing the dilemma of the dual career couple.

After months of an intensive search, you've finally identified the perfect candidate for that open faculty position. But there may be one more hurdle. Chances are the candidate is married—to another academic. And it's likely that the candidate's acceptance of your offer is contingent upon his or her spouse or partner locating employment. But nabbing a job in a one-university town in the middle of nowhere might be a tough task for a trailing spouse. Offering him or her a position within the university might be the only option to get the recruit to come on board.

Sound familiar? The dilemma has become increasingly common on college campuses across the country. Fortunately for married academicians, a growing number of colleges and universities are addressing the dual-career couple issue. If asked, about 80 percent of colleges and universities said they would do something to assist a new hire's spouse or partner in finding employment, according to a survey of 360 deans by Lisa Wolf-Wendel, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Kansas and co-author of the upcoming book, The Two Body Problem: Dual Career Couple Hiring Policies in Higher Education. About a quarter of the deans noted that their institutions had a written policy on the matter.

While the thought of tending to the needs of professional couples sounds like a family-friendly policy, the accommodation is more a survival tactic for higher education. “It's really about recruitment and retention of the best faculty,” says Wolf-Wendel. “From a recruitment standpoint, it's good PR, and you may be able to get someone you otherwise wouldn't have gotten.” It's a no-brainer, say many universities. If the trailing spouse or partner is taken care of jobwise, it increases the likelihood the recruit will accept the offer.

The assistance the deans said would occur comes in several shapes and sizes. The university could create a tenure-track position. That's a rarity, though, as it's not so easy to create a new faculty line. In fact, Wolf-Wendel notes that conjuring up tenure positions for trailing spouses is an option available mostly to large research universities that can absorb the cost. To do so, these universities develop funding formulas to share costs among departments and the provost's office.

Much more common among universities is an effort to find nontenure berths or part-time, adjunct, temporary, or sabbatical replacement slots. Some institutions create a shared, or split, position for the two professionals. Even more of the universities say their assistance comes in the form of connections and networking—with other departments within the university and with nearby businesses who may have openings suited to the trailing spouse. Some universities have teamed up with nearby or sister colleges to post joint job openings, while others give a hand by sending informational material like brochures and local employment ads to the trailing spouse.

Purdue University has a two-pronged dual-career program that melds many of these approaches. Begun in 1992, the Bridge Program supports couples who wish to have both partners join the faculty. Given the complex negotiations and discussions involved that cross departments, the program is run under the auspices of the executive vice president for academic affairs. Take a new hire in engineering, for example. His or her spouse or partner might be looking for a post in, say, English literature. If there is not enough money in the department to fund a full-time position, the Bridge Program would pitch in. “Some departments don't have any money at all. Some don't have any more faculty lines,” says Tari Alper, director of the university's spousal relocation assistance program. “This bridges everything.”

Alper heads up the other half of the dual-career program at Purdue. Her office provides all sorts of support to trailing spouses, from the skinny on elementary schools and car mechanics to contacts in the job market and statistics on the local housing market. In short, her office acts as a buddy to the trailing spouse. “We help a new hire focus on their new job rather than having to worry about their spouse, who may be feeling pretty abandoned in a new geographic area,” says Alper.

At the Georgia Institute of Technology there is no formal system in place, but spousal assistance is integral to the hiring process. “Part of our strategy in recruiting a person is to do everything we can to get the spouse work in the Atlanta area or at Tech or our sister institutions,” says Narl Davidson, interim dean of the college of engineering. How so? “We have a good working relationship with the different departments,” says Davidson, which allows him to pick up the phone and discuss job possibilities with his counterparts in other colleges. What's more, the university has established an extensive network of contacts with local companies to discern their job openings.


Keeping Them

Davidson says accommodating trailing spouses also helps ratchet up retention rates. In academia, it's not uncommon for dual-career couples to take jobs in different cities, commuting weekly or monthly to spend time with each other. The stress such a commute engenders—on top of the strain that being separated from a family entails—can be trying on even the most committed relationships. “We have definitely lost people because their spouse is working in another city,” says Davidson. Spouses or partners in the same city also make for better employees. “Faculty are more productive when they are leading whole lives, when half their life isn't at the other end of the country,” says Wolf-Wendel.

While institutions realize bolstering dual-career couples is beneficial to their futures, couples deem it a quality of life issue. Julie Jacko, an associate professor of industrial and systems engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, was hired a year ago—and so was her husband. This wasn't a case of hiring one spouse and then the other. The department actually had two openings suited to both their skills, not surprising at a large institution like Tech. (She specializes in human computer interaction; her husband, in health systems). But Jacko can attest to the benefits of working alongside her husband.

For example, there is some overlap in the research the two perform, allowing them to collaborate on a number of projects. And a mate in similar employ means more meaningful interaction. “We are able to get each other's input and bounce things off each other that ordinarily would be difficult to do if we had two entirely unrelated jobs,” says Jacko. “We view it as a positive that we can commute to work together and sort of rehash our days on the ride home together.” With the couple intertwined at the institution, chances are they'll be there for the long haul. “It's more complicated to go,” says Jacko.

It might seem that everything is hunky-dory for dual-career couples in academia. Not so. Wolf-Wendel found that about 15 percent of the deans surveyed would do nothing—yes, absolutely nothing—if asked to help a trailing spouse or partner find a job.

That's a mistake, say some experts. Universities who put their heads in the sand not only lose good people, they also can hamper efforts to increase diversity. In a 1998 study of physicists and other scientists, Laurie McNeil, a professor of physics and astronomy and applied and material sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a colleague found the spousal hiring issue has a stronger impact on women than on men. For example, McNeil notes that on a percentage basis, female physicists are far more likely to be married to other physicists than male physicists are. “What that means is that if a woman physicist who is looking for a job is married, it's quite likely that she also has a husband who is a physicist who is looking for a job,” says McNeil. With the density of such jobs in any given geographic area low, “it makes it much harder to find a second job for the spouse.”

McNeil advises universities ignoring the problem to get real. “If they want to be able to hire the people they want, they are going to have to address it,” says McNeil. She recommends that universities grapple with the issue now before it's too late to do so. “Hiring processes move very slowly,” says McNeil. “The time that it will take to do that is probably longer than the time frame the candidate is going to work with you on.”

Wolf-Wendel says some of the intransigence of universities stems from negative views of the spousal hiring process. She's heard critics rail on about the trailing spouse skipping over the normal vetting process—leading them to believe he or she is not as good as someone who went through a typical search. “They are therefore of lesser quality and therefore being foisted upon them. That's the perception and people are grumpy about that,” says Wolf-Wendel. “They really perceive that person has a leg up and therefore they are not as good.”

Some universities drag their feet on the issue because they worry any step taken will open a Pandora's box. What happens if a faculty member gets a divorce and remarries? Will that spouse or partner expect a job, too? Obviously, there are many questions to ponder as universities sort out their options. The number of dual-career academic couples continues to grow. It's only a matter of time before tandem academics seeking jobs is de rigueur.

Margaret Mannix is a freelance writer based in suburban Washington, D.C.