Spousal Hiring is Unethical? Puhleeze.
May 20, 2010
I recently read over a bit in the Chronicle of Higher Ed that seemed to me to be a very thoughtful take on the practices of spousal hires in academia.
The author, David Bell, was a dean at Johns Hopkins University at one point and had gained some experiences of the advantages and disadvantages of policies which resulted in the hiring of the spouse of an academic that was the target of the primary recruitment.
Most of the issues are familiar to my readers. Academics who are married to another academic professional face special challenges on the job hunt. Our employment often requires a move to a geographically distant location. Frequently the hiring University or college is the only academic jobsite within reasonable commuting distance. Dual-academic-career couples are highly motivated to find two jobs at the same place.
Universities and colleges have long recognized this and have instantiated various ad hoc solutions. The goal, of course, is to be able to land their primary recruit who just happens to be part of a dual career couple. The recruitment cost to the University, in addition to the salary, labspace and other demands of the primary recruit, includes opening up another academic job, tenure track or otherwise. Big deal.
Personally I think this is a great solution to the modern reality of academic folks married to others in the business. [Discl: I’m in one such partnership]
But hoo-boy. The comments after that bit in the Chronicle just went nuts.
Love the idea that you can give my job away because I don’t have a spouse/partner you want. Isn’t it terrific that the profession hires, according to David Bell’s article here, more than a third–a third!–of its faculty because of whom they sleep with. Damn this is a prescription for the meritocratic society I had been told I was being raised in.
Spousal hires are a crock of crap. Having been on the wrong side of a pretty egregious one many years ago means that I will never support one at any time in the future, and I don’t care about the petty feelings of the qualified spouse. If a candidate cannot get a job on his or her own merits, he or she shouldn’t be working.
Spousal hires have had the most profoundly malefic consequences at the univerisites I’ve been at. The consequences are far too varied to describe, and just when one thinks she or he can anticipate the negative consequences, a couple comes up with a fresh one.
are just the tip of the iceberg.
I’m really fascinated by this conceit that academic hires are somehow fair and unbiased in the first place and that opening up a job line that otherwise would not have existed is unethical.
Like it or not, a professorial hire is an investment on the part of the hiring department and University. They don’t hire the “best” person in the pool (and it is a joke to think there is such a thing), they hire the best person for their department and University. Often times that means the person who will stick around and commit themselves to the institution for a whole career. So the hiring folks do a lot of thinking on factors other than just academic record of excellence. On factors, quite obviously, that might be seen as biased or unfair if your only focus is on some pure distillation of academic papers produced. The hiring institution wonders a lot of things. Will the person’s personality fit? Will the person stay around?
This latter question becomes overwhelmingly important at smaller and less well regarded institutions. Given the difficulties in landing the first independent professor position, it is not unheard of for a person to apply for and take a first job at an institution s/he has no intention of staying with. This leaves the smaller institution investing startup and other resources in a promising young faculty candidate only to lose her after a short period of time.
Traditionally, the teaching heavy institutions of higher education have been very interested in peering into a candidate’s interest in teaching instead of just focusing on her publication record as a grad student and postdoc. Institutions in rural locations may worry about taking on a city slicker. Institutions in urban locations never seem to think of this, but I know of several cases in which an otherwise successful young professor bailed on Big Urban U to get a smaller-town feel.
I think concern that a new hire intends to make a career at the institution is a totally legitimate factor when deciding who to hire. We all understand that negotiating the job conditions is a legitimate part of hiring as well- when it comes to salary and lab space and technician salary for the first three years and the like. Why is it so difficult to see that making a job available for an academic spouse is just part of this biased hiring process?
I really don’t get why spousal hiring practices are viewed as unethical in and of themselves.
Now, as the original article notes, spousal hiring does suffer from a lack of consistency and transparency.
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.
This is a great point. If there is going to be a spousal hiring policy, it should be done via explicit procedure and as transparently as possible.
Young Female Scientist