Academic spousal accommodation in Europe

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 7, 2012

An American friend asked me recently whether Dutch universities have a practice of accommodating spouses when they offer an academic a job. Spousal accommodation could take many forms – either offering a job to the spouse, or making a serious effort in finding a job for the spouse, or supporting the spouse in his or her own job search. Yet I have never heard that there is a practice of spousal accommodation at European universities — whereas it does happen in the US.

Is the impression I have correct? Are there any signs this is changing in Europe? And is it in the US only a matter for certain academic jobs – say: you want to make an offer s/he can’t refuse to a brilliant established professor, or does it also occur at entry-level positions? I’d love to read your views and experiences.

As to the desirability of the practice of spousal accommodation, I have not made up my mind yet. One the one hand, I see around me excellent young academics who are virtually unemployed because their spouse is in a place where there is no job for them, and they don’t want to be living far away from their family; on the other hand we tend to think that jobs should be allocated on a fair equality of opportunities principle — and it is unclear whether spousal accommodation meets this principle. It probably depends on the exact nature of the spousal accommodation: if it merely entails supporting one’s job search on the existing job market, then it seems fine; if it is the actual creation of a job for a spouse, or the striking of a deal with another department that they hire the spouse for a vacancy that is about to be opened, it seems more problematic.



MathieuP 05.07.12 at 7:43 am

At French Universities, academic spousal accomodation is not possible. Each position in the public sector is subject to a form of competitive examination. Recruiting a prospective professor’s spouse would mean to actually rig the porcess in a way that would make it cancellable by other candidates to the position.


leo from Chicago 05.07.12 at 7:50 am

I dunno. I think I’d call it a scandal.


Scott Martens 05.07.12 at 8:03 am

My current department offered a job to the wife of a prominent academic as part of a package to entice him here. In this department, there are two other spousal couples that I know of where both work in the department – one couple are lowly grad students, not teaching faculty. I have no idea if there is a policy – it was not discussed at my hiring, but I didn’t ask. My previous department definitely did no such thing.


Z 05.07.12 at 8:37 am

In my field in France, the idea of making a non-trivial effort to help the spouse of a would-be hire find a job (the good kind of spousal accommodation) is essentially unheard of. Striking a deal with another department or giving preferential treatment (the bad kind of spousal accommodation) would be illegal. Even so, it does seem to occur from times to times, but such arrangements are very much frowned upon. They are also usually the object of long-lasting jokes, not all of them in good taste; something which probably ensures that nothing will be done to replace unethical arrangements with ethical ones.


Phil 05.07.12 at 8:46 am

I’ve never heard of such a thing, although I’m not at a level where it would happen. I think the Professor Dobashes may have come as a package, but that was a bit different.


Sacha Sokoloski 05.07.12 at 9:13 am

I knew a Portugese guy who left a German PhD program for one back in Lisbon because they had made it easier for him and his boyfriend to both secure a position. It was rather nice that they would do this even for homosexuals.

As I’m moving up the academic food chain though, I do find myself thinking aobut this a lot. I don’t think it’s really unfair at all, and it’s nice to hear that this does happen in the US.

Ideally competition should be relatively blind to personal circumstance, but building an academic career does have especially high demands on mobility. Some accommodation ought to be provided to those who, for whatever foolish reason, have decided to have a family in their 30s. Otherwise spouses and families will be forced to make terrible choices.

In a way I’m reminded of affirmitive action policies… without some special accomodation, family inclined people will be locked out of higher careers, never mind that the actual burden of a family makes this more difficult anyway.

And to be honest, even though this post was framed in nice, gender neutral language, I would think that what most of these decisions would come down to is whether the female partner is willing to give up her career. Maybe this is taking to far, but I think there’s an undercurrent of sexism in assuming that you can ask a family to move across the world based on the career of just one of them.


Michael 05.07.12 at 9:52 am

When I was offered a job in Germany I was given to understand that it was highly unusual to find the spouse a job. Still, they moved mountains to do so for my wife, also an academic. The best they managed was to twist the arm of a fellow professor to offer her a temporary job in his research group in the institute where my chair was. In the event it seemed a presumption on my part to make my wife take a temporary job when she was already in an established post on what later came to be called an ‘open-ended’ contract. So here we are, still in England. There’s a little sun today, but rain is expected later.


Scott Martens 05.07.12 at 10:19 am

Take a look at – this strikes me as qualifying as a change in attitudes, at least my current country.

I asked around and the word on the grapevine here is that there is a conscious effort to hire away Europeans from American universities, and that some exceptions are being made to make this possible. Apparently, someone in this country has decided to take advantage of the currently hostile political climate towards academics in the US and offer people good terms to return to the old World. This seems to be occurring despite qualified locals failing to find tenured positions. It might also mean a conscious effort to duplicate American academic social benefits, and the acknowledgement that people in grad schools tend to partner with other people with career goals beyond child-rearing and housekeeping.


guero 05.07.12 at 10:41 am

Great. Now we’ll have a conversation about spousal hires where everyone will worry that some principle of fairness is being violated, blind to the countless other supposed principles of fairness that are voided in the academic (or other professional) hiring process. Academia is, like the rest of the economy, systematically sexist. What this conversation always ends up being about is some tool’s worries about whether or not some woman who gets hired is qualified.


ptl 05.07.12 at 11:00 am

What this conversation always ends up being about is some tool’s worries about whether or not some woman who gets hired is qualified.

Not all women candidates for academic (or other) posts are spouses, and not all spouses/spousal hires are female.


krippendorf 05.07.12 at 11:07 am

For a very informative, data-based report on dual-career academic couples in the US context, see the Clayman Institute’s (Stanford) report on dual-career academic couples. The report is based on a survey of 13,000 faculty at elite US institutions. Obviously it’s hard to generalize to what happens at the non-elite institutions, but my sense is that most US universities are wrestling with the issue, financially, logistically, and “morally”.

As #8 alludes to, this isn’t a gender neutral issue. Women academics are more likely to be married to other academics or to non-academic professionals than men. There are also still gender differences in the extent to which men and women in dual-career couples prioritize their career over their spouse’s, even given equivalent earnings. (Source: the aforementioned Clayman report.)


inUK 05.07.12 at 11:07 am

My wife and I have found (we are both academics in different fields) that in the UK some univeristies will push other departments a little. Others, not so much. A lot seems to depend on the heads of departments. In our case, where she is currently (3 hour commute) is making a job for me (job talk soon, in fact). Where I am, they have jobs listed in her field but my department refuses to contact that department and simply say, “it would be good for us if this person were looked at a bit longer (wink, nudge).” We are both doing pretty good so it is not a matter of under-performing. But, no, in my experience, spousal hires are pretty rare.


Manta1976 05.07.12 at 11:28 am

In Germany you can get extra money if your spouse is not working.


CharlieMcMenamin 05.07.12 at 12:06 pm

I must admit that, as the non academic partner of someone who has recently entered academia in mid life, I’m a bit gobsmacked by the very premise that academics’ partners might be given any sort of preferential access to employment.

Am I naive? Am I just (U.K.) parochial? Do big corporations fix up jobs for their executives’ spouses? Does the diplomatic service of any nation? Do churches take any responsibility for this sort of thing when posting minsters to different livings? If, as I assume to be the case, the answer to all these questions is ‘no’, then what makes academia different?

Ingrid carefully distinguishes between ‘helping in a spouse’s job search’ (OK by her, and by me) and actually creating or giving them a job without any competitive element, which is surely, at minimum, massively unfair. An unkind person might even say it was nepotism bordering on corruption.


Jim Rose 05.07.12 at 1:02 pm

public sector employers usually have a duty to fill each vacancy on merit.

writing exceptions would be a challenge given the fluidity of modern relationships and the need for evidence.


marek 05.07.12 at 1:14 pm

In a BBC documentary on Andre Geim broadcast just a few weeks ago, he talked explicitly about the fact that he had been attracted to Manchester because they could also offer a job to his wife. No doubt it helped that he was on his way to a Nobel prize, and he clearly felt no need to be embarrassed. Whether he should have done is, of course, quite another question.


malilo 05.07.12 at 1:16 pm

I have an interesting take on this from two perspectives.

One, my advisor was a spousal hire. At my (private, american, top-tier) university, his wife was a highly sought candidate for a facultty position in the sciences. He (the husband, my advisor), in a different STEM field was given at first a non-tenure-track position, and this was then upgraded to tenure track after I think 2 years of “ok” performance. However, over the next 5 years he did not do well. In fact, he pretty much failed every metric for getting tenure anywhere, much less at a top school. I’ll leave the misery of my personal experience under him out (let’s just say I learned everything I know from negative examples), but he was, essentially, a failure. I was in the extremely awkward position of having to be supportive in public while privately feeling that it would be very wrong to give tenure to someone so ill-qualified (I thought of his future students, chiefly). He was denied, eventually (oh and he divorced the wife, sadly).

My other perspective is as one half of an academic couple. Personally, I am quite envious of how things are done in the medical field where graduate appointments are made in a national “mutual ranking” algorithm and couples can easily be accommodated. I think giving a spousal hire a chance is a reasonable thing to do if they would qualify for the position in the first place – in other words, the spousal connection confers only a slight advantage, and doesn’t place people in positions in which they are likely to fail.

I have also observed that many of the best female minds in my field (the full professors, sought speakers, etc) are married to other professors at the same university. It could be a fluke, or it could be that the “affirmative action” boost of spousal hiring has allowed these women to avoid the glass ceiling.


Ed 05.07.12 at 1:33 pm

As a non-academic, I agree with Chris McManamin at #14. I’m amazed that this happens anywhere. Does “spousal hire” happen anywhere outside of academia, or is this a weird academic thing? Do you people realized that there are actually jobs in which the worker has to relocate and (usually his) spouse can not accompany (usually him) at all?

These questions are probably a bit naive, but couldn’t the salary of the academic superstar be increased so that a non-working partner can live on it as well? Also, would a situation occur where someone would not get hired for a position in which he or she is well qualified for, because the spouse of someone higher in the pecking order was parachuted into the position?


Josh G. 05.07.12 at 1:37 pm

My other perspective is as one half of an academic couple. Personally, I am quite envious of how things are done in the medical field where graduate appointments are made in a national “mutual ranking” algorithm and couples can easily be accommodated.

One major difference is that in the medical field, good jobs tend to be fairly easy to come by for skilled practitioners (doctors and nurses), while in academia, full-time jobs with benefits are as scarce as hen’s teeth. If there was a good job market for academics, then the “trailing spouse” issue wouldn’t be an issue at all; institutions would be thrilled to get two workers at once. The problem is that we’re creating too many PhDs while simultaneously failing to adequately fund the creation of tenure-track jobs.


Watson Ladd 05.07.12 at 1:45 pm

I think it’s important to note that this also differs by geography and profession. If your wife is an actuary and you are working at Yale, she probably can get a job in Hartford. (Not that unreasonably far away from New Haven). OTOH, if your husband is a commercial lawyer and you are seeking work at Dartmouth, good luck finding anything for him to do.


David 05.07.12 at 1:50 pm

There is sometimes another dynamic at play worth mentioning – several American universities outside the top-25 or so have reputations for strategically going after spousal packages because, by hiring them together, they get two scholars who are each better then what they would have gotten if they had filled those same slots with two unrelated people. In other words, the discussion so far has assumed a case with one good scholar and less-stellar spouse where the university tries to accomodate the latter in order to hire the former. The other case is two very good scholars who would independently each get a good job, but are limited by their preference to work in the same place – a situation taken advantage of by lower-ranked schools. In such cases fairness might not be an issue at all.


Gene O'Grady 05.07.12 at 1:52 pm

From my experience (a long time ago, but not that long) in executive support in a very large corporation, yes, spousal accommodation does happen there too. I don’t know why people are shocked.

I found it generally preferable to mistress accommodation (gender specific because it always was), which produced some real messes.


Western Dave 05.07.12 at 2:02 pm

What David said. In all the cases of spousal hire of which I am aware, (a small sample to say the least), the couples involved were both already tenured at their institutions and alone would have been catches for the hiring institution. To score both was a coup. @Charlie “Do big corporations fix up jobs for their executives’ spouses? Does the diplomatic service of any nation? Do churches take any responsibility for this sort of thing when posting minsters to different livings?” In the US, at least, the answer is yes, all the time.


wilfred 05.07.12 at 2:06 pm

I’ve been short listed and have an interview coming up. My wife is also an academic – is it ok to ask about spousal hiring on an interview? It seems a bit much to bring the subject up but how else would you know?


rvman 05.07.12 at 2:21 pm

Following on #18 and #20 – the big difference between academia and other ‘professional’ careers is that most professions don’t have the dynamic of absolute lack-of-control over final destination that academics have, (You go where the the job is. There is no practical option to get a job in “New York” as the market is too competitive for that, and no telecommuting is possible), coupled with the decentralization. If you marry an actuary, you know he/she likely will land in Hartford, New York, or Chicago. 99% of professionals can get a decent job in Hartford, New York, or Chicago. Many professionals are going to have significant problems finding a job in Ithaca, NY (home of Cornell). This problem gets amplified when you get below the top tier, and you are trying to find a position for your spouse in or near Alpine, Texas; Missoula, Montana; or Pullman, Washington (homes of West Texas State University, the University of Montana, and Washington State University, respectively). If the partner is also an academic, the problem is amplified, unless the university makes an effort to find a place for the spouse.

I suspect companies looking for in-demand professionals in out-of-the-way places do accomodate spouses, but companies in major metros probably don’t, as much. I have no data to back up that speculation, though.


Jim Demintia 05.07.12 at 2:30 pm

The question of fairness here seems to make an unwarranted assumption that a partner hire prevents better qualified candidates from getting the job. In the majority of cases in my experience, there would simply be no job were it not for the partner hire–the dean agrees to create a new line for someone’s partner that a department would not be able to get out of him/her otherwise. I’m inclined to say that when they’re best handled, partner hires occur without an open search. In those cases, there is no competition so there is no unfairness.

I’m also inclined to say that whatever partner hires contribute to the injustice of the current academic job market, it is so infinitesimal compared to the effects of the shrinking proportion of TT lines in most departments and the exploitation of adjunct labor that worrying about the fairness of partner hires seems counterproductive to me.


Michael 05.07.12 at 2:31 pm

To Charlie at 14:
“Am I naive? Am I just (U.K.) parochial?” I don’t know.

“Do big corporations fix up jobs for their executives’ spouses?” Quite often, yes.

“Does the diplomatic service of any nation?” Yes, occasionally.

“Do churches take any responsibility for this sort of thing when posting minsters to different livings?” My knowledge of internal church politics only extends to the RC variety, so any rumours I’ve heard of such things are rather quiet.

I agree that there are some ethical issues, but the benefits, especially for universities in out-of-the-way places are tremendous. In the US, many schools are located in towns where the university is by far the largest employer. If they want to hire someone who will stick around for a long period of time (i.e. not apply to every job under the sun in the first year after starting), they need to find ways to make the place attractive, and a job for a spouse is one way to do that.


Alex 05.07.12 at 2:39 pm

There was a piece on this in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few years back:

The author (at Princeton) concludes with “[in] an academic universe where most universities have accepted the need for the practice…”. Does seem that “academic universe” here means “American academic universe”…


Manta1976 05.07.12 at 2:43 pm

An easy way to solve the “fairness” problem would be to give the job to the qualified person who asks the least money.

As an aside, I think the main problem with giving an academic job as a form of “spousal accommodation” is not lack of fairness to other candidates, but the danger of hiring unqualified people (see @17).


Manuel 05.07.12 at 2:50 pm

My experiences are with Germany, Italy, and Britain. TT hires at top-tier universities in all three of those places seem much more enmeshed in cronyism and the oldboy network than those in the USA. I have found that when the primary candidate was a top-scholar AND a politically well connected person, then spousal accommodation could occur.


Marc 05.07.12 at 2:52 pm

Women in academe are substantially more likely to be married to another academic than men are.

*Of course* universities, and private employers, take this into account. At minimum the university will assist in a job search for the spouse – because if you actually want someone to come you don’t get to demand that they live in another city from their spouse or that their spouse quite their job. These demands are a good way to ensure that you don’t lure the senior person that you’re looking for.

A package for a senior hire can frequently involve their being able to bring other researchers, students, or even other junior faculty with them to create a research group. From the point of view of the university it’s also perfectly fair to ask another department if they’re interested in having someone join – in effect, as a target of opportunity. If the spouse is “interesting” to the second department then the university can attract them – and this is usually into a position that would not exist without the senior hire in the first place. Our department has benefited enormously from this, to the loss of other places that didn’t give a damn about such matter.

Universities that do this also tend to have faculty who want to stick around. And it isn’t restricted to academe.


Jonathan Mayhew 05.07.12 at 3:07 pm

#11… #29. “Women academics are more likely to be married to other academics…” If we are talking about heterosexual marriage only, then then number or women married to academics and the number of men married to academics is exactly the same. Of course, a higher percentage of women could be married to academics than men, but that is just another way of saying that there are more men in academia period.


mpowell 05.07.12 at 3:08 pm

I think if you are shocked to imagine that this could happen, you have not thought about the issue in the right way. It is incredibly inefficient socially for one half of a partnership to be permanently underemployed because of the limitations of the job market. In various sectors, this could be quite difficult to arrange due to legal requirements on a competitive hire process. This may be a valuable rule to implement in general, but specific exceptions for spousal accomodation could be useful as a matter of social justice and, of course, private business are generally under no such obligations. In extremely competitive markets like academia where there are simply not enough jobs for those interested in them, I agree there could be problems of fairness. But if you are considering an administrative position, for example, the idea of having to hire the most qualified person is silly. No metric exists for reliably determing such a person and creating a local opportunity for an adequately qualified person who could definitely find a job somewhere on a consistent basis greatly increases the chances that both partners in a relationship can realize their full potential in the workplace. This is a much more socially optimal outcome and, I think, also very valuable in reaching a less gendered workplace and society. It would be most appropriate for positions where there are enough jobs for qualified applicants generally, but where the liquidity in the job market can be quite limited in a specific locality. Even academic positions could qualify for consideration if you are talking about an accomodation candidate who could definitely get an equivalent position somewhere else in the state but due to the whims of the selection committe and the timing of job openings have only a limited chance of landing whatever job happens to be available at that particular university.


js. 05.07.12 at 3:09 pm

What David @ 21 said. Another reason that non-top tier universities make spousal hires (sometimes at least) is that there is a greater chance of the hirees staying longer at the non-top tier university (or at least this is a widespread perception). Job searches are expensive, and universities have a strong interest in reducing turnover.

Of course, what malilo describes does happen sometimes, and that’s obviously problematic.


Anon 05.07.12 at 3:09 pm

I know of three friends (all at top-tier US institutions, and considered rising stars in their respective STEM areas) who have been hired by top-tier (continental) European institutions in the last few years, and these institutions have also hired their spouses. All spouses are very highly qualified in their own right (one was already tenured, another was tenure-track), but knowing what I do of the tightness of the European academic market, I feel I can safely say that these were “package” hires, rather than all three couples getting lucky and being hired by the same place at the same time (especially given that only one of the six spoke the language of the country they were moving to). The “lead” hire in two of the three cases is a man, in one case a woman. None of the institutions is French.

As to the digression into fairness: I don’t see the practice of spousal hires as it happens in academia as particularly problematic (I am not an academic myself; I am aware of numerous examples of this in the US; and I do believe this happens more in academia than in non-academic areas). Universities often are in out-of-the-way places where chances of spousal employment are limited, so spousal employment is an important competitive point (also, would you rather see the physicist get a leg-up for their spouse and so stay in Ithaca, or would you rather have them go work on Wall Street for many times their academic salary?). And, in all the cases that I am aware of, the spouses were always good enough to be a strongly plausible candidate for the jobs they were offered.


krippendorf 05.07.12 at 3:11 pm

So far, comments have shown the predictable outrage over dual-career hiring as an ethical violation of merit-based hiring, presumably meaning hiring that is based solely on a fixed and observable ranking of candidates on some function of research quality and quantity, teaching ability, and other job-relevant skills.

Problem is, academic labor markets don’t work that way. In my experience, by the time a department gets to its short list, all candidates are “above the bar,” but none are perfect on all dimensions. In this context, the “merit” ranking of candidates is going to depend on (a) the criteria each voter deems relevant, and, more importantly, (b) the relative weights he or she attaches to each criterion. And, for senior level hires in particular, many faculty will use “moveability” as a criterion, even if they don’t admit it out loud: no one wants to waste time, resources, and a possibly disappearing line on an offer that has zero chance of acceptance.

The upshot is that in the absence of university efforts to accommodate spouses, unattached faculty or faculty with stay-at-home partners/spouses will be more likely to receive offers than equally productive and talented faculty who have employed spouses, simply because the former are more likely to meet the “moveable” criterion. And, because they receive more offers, unattached or SAHP faculty will also have higher salaries (on average), given raises are so closely tied to outside offers. Is this fair?

Add to this gender differences in partnering behavior among academics (see the report link in #11). In the absence of dual-career hiring efforts by universities, you’ll wind up with a less gender-diverse faculty and greater gender disparities in pay, on average, because women academics are less likely to be “moveable” than men. (I also think that hiring committees are more likely to assume that women are less moveable than men, regardless of whether they are or not. But that’s a different post.) In some sense, then, US universities’ greater attention to dual-career issues emerged from efforts to increase the gender diversity of their faculty.

BTW, many administrators will tell you that it’s efficient to invest resources/lines for dual-career hires, for two reasons. First, smart people tend to partner with smart people, so offering two jobs can allow universities to compete for faculty that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to attract. Sometimes the stars align and there are two open lines and both hiring departments independently come to the conclusion that the dual-career candidate is the best person for the job; more often, though, one department won’t have an open line, or it’ll be looking in a different subfield than the dual-career candidate’s specialty, or whatever. In this case, it makes financial sense for the university to step in with a new line to make both hires possible.

Second, academics whose spouses are unhappy with their employment situation are flight risks; and turnover, especially in the bench sciences, is both costly and inefficient. My point is it’s not a straightforward, zero-sum game wherein the resources spent on spousal hires would otherwise be available to hire someone else.

As for the form that university spousal accommodations take, many US universities don’t have the luxury of “just” offering job-search assistance or the benefit of their network connections to non-academic employes, because their local labor markets are just too limited. And, once one university starts a program — whatever it is — to help recruit faculty, it’s not long before others do as well.

Finally, I don’t think universities are unique in allocating resources to accommodate spouses. University hiring tends to be more public than private-sector hiring, and universities operate in institutional environments that place greater emphasis on diversity. But there are certainly many, many cases of “nepotism” in the private sector as well.


marek 05.07.12 at 3:13 pm

Jim @26

there is no competition so there is no unfairness.

The absence of competition is precisely the source of the unfairness. Somebody getting a job on the strength of their partner’s qualifications is intrinsically unfair to somebody who does not have such a partner, whatever the process (or absence of process) used.


otto 05.07.12 at 3:15 pm

The issue is more difficult for academia just because universities are geographical monopolies in the way that e.g. law firms or hospitals aren’t. There would often be many dozens of different ways to be employed as a lawyer or doctor or etc in a certain town where there would be only one institution that could employ you as a university professor. That’s why universities need to think about spousal hires in ways that most other businesses do not.

Wilfred: it’s a topic to bring up after the interview, i.e. when you’ve been offered the job.


Jim Demintia 05.07.12 at 3:18 pm

@ marek

Okay. Better then that neither have jobs. This is why I think focusing on the unfairness of partner hires is counter-productive–it encourages the same kind of thinking on display in hostility to public unions: why isn’t your deal as bad mine?


js. 05.07.12 at 3:20 pm

Somebody getting a job on the strength of their partner’s qualifications is intrinsically unfair to somebody who does not have such a partner, whatever the process (or absence of process) used.

Sure, but this almost never happens though. I’m not saying you couldn’t find any instances of this sort of thing, but it’s very very far from the norm in “package” hires.


Jim Demintia 05.07.12 at 3:39 pm

Just to clarify: I simply haven’t seen a case in which a partner hire has been incompetent and/or unqualified and got a position solely based on their partner’s qualifications. Without exception, the partner hires I’ve witnessed have resulted in departments getting two great people instead of one. Since the second line wouldn’t have been created otherwise, it’s an net plus for both the department but also improves (albeit incrementally in each case) the job market more broadly, given that the problem with the job market is the lack of TT positions for all the people qualified for them.


marek 05.07.12 at 4:00 pm

Jim, js

I understand that argument and have some sympathy with it. But the conclusion must be that (at best) it is unfair, but justified on some criteria not based on fairness; rather than that it is fair. If the job is genuinely created for the partner, and does not in any way displace any other job creation which might otherwise have taken place, that’s perhaps not so bad, but it also sounds like quite a tough standard to reach.

But I say all of that as a disinterested and uninformed observer from outside academia – and from a world in which hiring a partner because they are a partner would arguably be a criminal act.


Marc 05.07.12 at 4:13 pm

@30: Yes, there are fewer women than men in academe, especially in the sciences where I’m the most familiar with the data. If you’re already facing a substantial gender imbalance you don’t improve matters by de facto applying a much more stringent standard to female scientists.


Steve Kyle 05.07.12 at 4:19 pm

It does happen at the entry (new asst. prof) level at some US universities but their willingness depends a lot on the location – or at least that was my experience. When I was on the market 20 years ago Cornell was willing to help my then-wife because in a place like Ithaca, Cornell pretty much IS the job market for an academic in most disciplines. If they didnt make an accommodation they would lose a very large percentage of potential hires who are in a relationship.

A related note – Most of the other universities I had offers at or which showed interest didnt want to hear about my spouse. I learned the hard way that the only way to reply to the (seemingly illegal) questions about what my spouse would do was to say “My wife told me that if you offer me this job I should take it, so I hope you do offer it to me”. If they thought that my decision was dependent on a spouse that was apparently a strike against me – But jobs in places like NYC could ignore the issue because there are enough alternatives that they can leave it to you to figure it out.


ptl 05.07.12 at 4:37 pm

41. You certainly don’t. But nor do you improve matters by applying a more stringent standard to unmarried women than to female spouses.

(Or what 35 said.)


SusanC 05.07.12 at 4:38 pm

The partner problem often comes in academic hiring — often, you offer someone a job but everyone is aware that if the potential new employee’s partner isn’t also able to find a job in the same town, the deal is going to fall through.

A rational, utility maximing employer might observe this situation and make a commerical decision to offer a job to both of them. But Universities really aren’t rational utility-maximising agents. They are inefficient bureacracies, with a general principle that procedural rules must always be followed, even when doing so will cost the University a significant amount of money.

Not only that, they don’t even have the mechanism to do it. If person A wants a job with faculty X, and their spouse B wants a job with faculty Y, there is no way in hell faculty Y will do something that’s not in its own immediate interest just to do a favour for faculty X.

This would, I think, be considered corruption. I can think of one case where one spouse mentioned that their other spouse had just got a job at the institution they were applying to, purely by way of explaining their sudden desire for a job change, and HR were somewhat incensed at the thought that the applicant might be angling for special consideration. (The second of the couple to apply wasn’t asking for special consideration, and none was needed, as their academic reputation was rather greater than that of their partner who had already been hired…)

From the point of view of research (not the HR/admin side…) we do create posts taking into consideration whether there might be a qualified applicant available to fill them. If we happen to know that the world expert in X is going to be living nearby, and unable to relocate because of their spouse’s job constraints, we might seize the opportunity to expand our department’s expertise in X.

I can think of at least one case where work permits were the issue. ie. you want to employ the wife, and can get a work permit for her, but the husband is less of a high-fligher, so he can’t get permission to enter the country long-term.


CK 05.07.12 at 4:46 pm

Could someone tell me whether American universities that engage in spousal hiring do so by having a blanket policy to, say, give preferential consideration to the spouses of all their hires, or just do so to accommodate the spouses of a few select individual star hires?

I have trouble seeing how the former is fair, but the latter seems even more problematic.


David Moles 05.07.12 at 4:46 pm

mpowell @31 FTW.


Britta 05.07.12 at 4:53 pm

It seems to be the case that in the US, lots of schools don’t have a set policy but rather look at the spouse issue on a case by case basis. My department recently lost 2 up and coming mid-level faculty for spousal hire reasons. In one case I don’t really know the story, but in the other, the professor married a grad student in a different but related field, and our university decided her scholarship was too shoddy to try and either make a position or get another dept. to hire her. Of course, he got offered a spousal deal at a very wealthy school trying to build their dept and went there. There is one notorious case at our university where a particularly big name got his spouse (who was his former grad student he left his previous wife for) hired despite less her than stellar scholarship, much to the grumbling of everyone else in the department. There are yet other examples though, of spousal hires where the spouse is a perfectly fine academic and thus not necessarily ‘unfairly’ taking jobs away from other possible candidates. At least at top universities, it seems spousal hires are part of the bargaining that the school does to hire or keep top candidates it really wants.

As for why a university would hire a spouse rather than pay the hotshot more money so the spouse would not have to work, most academic spouses would like to work for many reasons besides money (there’s a reason they went into academica in the first place), so I imagine a place where your spouse was working would be more attractive than a place where your spouse couldn’t get a job even if you made more money.


MPAVictoria 05.07.12 at 5:08 pm

“Do big corporations fix up jobs for their executives’ spouses? Does the diplomatic service of any nation? Do churches take any responsibility for this sort of thing when posting minsters to different livings? If, as I assume to be the case, the answer to all these questions is ‘no’, then what makes academia different?”

Actually this kind of thing happens all the time in each of the situations you listed. I personally don’t have a problem with it. Job selection processes are never “fair” or “impartial” anyway. It makes sense to take reasonable measures to try and keep your staff happy.


QS 05.07.12 at 5:11 pm

As the husband of an outstanding female scholar, don’t presume the female trailing spouse. In our instance, it’s likely to be the opposite — assuming it happens at all. Additionally, the logic of “two academic bodies in one place makes for roots” is sound. Were we to land positions in the same uni/college, it would diminish the likelihood of our leaving to near zero. Otherwise we would be constantly searching to find that common location, making for a short tenure at whatever positions we had found.


Kenny Easwaran 05.07.12 at 5:15 pm

In reading about the careers of female mathematicians of a few decades ago, I learned that people like Julia Robinson were unable to secure employment because of anti-nepotism laws that it made it illegal for the employer of their husbands to hire them. And of course, Julia Robinson was a much more prominent mathematician than Raphael Robinson, and yet he was at Berkeley and she was officially unemployed.

Just given the fact that in heterosexual marriages, the male partner is normally a few years older than the female partner, one would expect this sort of thing to happen. The male graduates and gets a job, then the female graduates, and even if she’s much more prominent than him, the couple may decide that it’s safer to stay where the one person is already just about to get tenure rather than move for the career of the stronger academic. When you add on top the fact that many of the people making hiring decisions are still people who were hired at a time when there were basically no female academics, and may still have opinions of merit that were shaped at that time, it makes sense that you would need some sort of official consideration to get past this extra glass ceiling.

The fact that it’s good for children and families can just be seen as an added bonus.


Anonymous 05.07.12 at 5:25 pm

I have heard of cases like 21 describes (joint hires in 2nd tier universities in out of the way locations) in the UK and across Europe including the Netherlands. I only know of cases where both members of the couple are applying to the same department and thus one head-of-dept can make the decisions, without having to appeal to other departments. My husband & I are both academics but in different fields and hence in different (but commutable) universities.


Mr Punch 05.07.12 at 5:41 pm

What you have to remember about the US is that distances are great and that many important universities are in rather isolated locations (particularly because of the land-grant system). As a result, the professional accommodation of faculty spouses is a far more critical issue here than it is in much of Europe, (Oh, and our trains are really slow.)


David Steinsaltz 05.07.12 at 5:52 pm

A few years back I was offered a professorship in the statistics department of a Belgian university. For my partner, who is at a similar level, they could at best arrange a one-year postdoc. Although it was otherwise an attractive offer, we went instead to Canada. (We’ve since moved to the UK, where the large number of universities crammed into a small space makes the two-body problem easier to resolve.)

As for the question raised by many of why academia should be a special case, there are few other professions in which no city in the world has more than a couple of job openings in your field in a year, and most job openings are the only one in that city for several years. This means that academics already need to be exceptionally flexible in deciding where to live, and it is exceptionally difficult even for two equally qualified spouses to independently get hired in the same university, or the same city, given the inevitable randomness in any given academic hire. Two lawyers or doctors or accountants would not have this problem. Again, this is much more of a problem in North America, where the distance from one university to the next can be hundreds of miles.


Jonathan Mayhew 05.07.12 at 5:53 pm

If a lot of people employed in good tenure track jobs are employed as a spousal hirings, in a field in which tenure track jobs are very difficult to come by, then being married to someone else in academia would be a tremendous advantage.

On the other hand, without spousal hiring, being married to another academic would be a huge handicap.

So either way, both engaging in spousal hiring and refusing to do so would seem to skew hiring practices the profession in huge way. In my case, I never got hired where my spouse was, or was able to get her hired where I was, and that contributed to my divorce, eventually. In my case we are both prominent scholars in related fields, with comparable records. It just never happened.


Steve Kyle 05.07.12 at 6:01 pm

Academics are often married to other academics for the simple reason that they are in grad school when they are of the age when people tend to find a partner. Almost everyone I knew in grad school was also in grad school. Between that and “birds of feather flocking together” it should be no surprise that this is a recurrent problem.

And as for “unfairness” in academic hiring stemming from considering spousal hires, how is that more unfair than NOT hiring qualified people because of their spouses?

In my case, at least, my wife wasn’t guaranteed a lifetime appointment. She was given a chance to earn one. And the university is not sorry they did. She has been very successful.


J. Otto Pohl 05.07.12 at 6:09 pm

Our department recently hired a husband and wife pair. But, it would have been a lot harder to get them both hired at the university if they both were not historians. We are so short on labor that we can afford to hire every single qualified applicant at this point.


PT 05.07.12 at 6:10 pm

(Disclosure: I’m a male “trailing spouse” who first did a postdoc – 8 time zones away from my wife, mind you – then got a TT position at another institution 150 miles away, before being hired in to the same department where my wife had been for the previous 5 years.)

My wife has made the following observation: The fact that she and I both work at the same institution means that both of us are willing to spend more time on campus than would be the case if we worked at different places. (We don’t need to be at home to see each other.) The result is that our institution gets a lot of extra work out of us.

It seems reasonable to assert that those overseeing hiring (in both the corporate and higher-ed worlds) tend to act in what they perceive to be the best interest of their institution. Keeping good employees working productively, whether by means of spousal hires at big universities or fancy cafeterias at Google, is good for the productivity of the institution and therefore justifies the expenditure.

Note that this also places a constraint upon spousal hiring — if an unqualified person is hired, then there is a danger that morale, and hence productivity, will decline.

Note also that certain types of “unfair” actions (e.g. discrimination based on legally protected status, such as race) are illegal in the US, but that there few other legal requirements regarding hiring and “fairness”.


TWB 05.07.12 at 6:11 pm

Objections to spousal hiring are persuasive because of the widely held belief that hiring should be based on merit. This is problematic because there are two competing definitions of “merit” in this situation.

1. For applicants, “merit” means academic qualifications, i.e. the quality of the work an applicant produces, his/her research skills, his/her experience, etc. This is the kind of merit that goes on a C.V.

2. On the other hand, to universities, the “merit” of applicants has a more expansive definition. In addition to the above, universities are interested in how applicants will help the university in other ways: prestige/fame, “fitting in” to the academic culture, salary requirements, likelihood of being headhunted or enticed to leave, likelihood of publishing new research, teaching methodology, etc. When I was in grad school, I attended some job talks and was struck by how these criteria mattered as much as, and sometimes more than, the quality of the research the candidate produced.

It is perhaps unjustified to assume that the definition of merit in (1) is better than or should be privileged over the definition of merit in (2). If we allow that (2) is valid, then of course spousal hiring is fine. It helps universities hire the people they want and entice them to stay.

If the academic job market was any good, this would be a non-issue.


nvalvo 05.07.12 at 6:13 pm

I basically agree with everything Krippendorf said, and highly recommend Londa Schiebinger’s report to which s/he linked above. The data in there about the increased significance of these issues for women and people of color are also worth noting (cf. fig 12 on p. 29 of the PDF).

I would add this to Krippendorf’s observations: Equality of opportunity can mean more than one thing. Perhaps viewed at the individual level, one could argue that such practices are an unfair allocation of scarce opportunities relative to some dubious, perspectivally-bound vision of ‘merit,’ but would anyone really argue that that would be the most substantive way to see this question? Insofar as we are interested in advancing the position of women within the profession — which we should all be — the best way to do that is to make possible a less trying work/family balance in our fields.

It may be that I’m part of an academic couple who has already benefited a bit from such practices and will at some point hope to benefit more, but I think the fairness crowd is way off the deep end here. I may be biased, but I don’t think I’m wrong.

I’m 30, and many of my friends are in such couples. Just anecdotally, it seems like the burden of our bizarre labor market falls heavily on the women, who — having chosen to spend their 20s earning a PhD over having children — are now asked to spend their 30s securing junior faculty positions, often with their partners working elsewhere. The years add up. It’s hard to argue that our profession is meaningfully open to everyone if women have to make enormous sacrifices (that men do not — men’s biological and tenure clocks are not in conflict in the same way) in order to participate. Leveling that difference is a legitimate consideration in hiring, and making this sort of accommodation is probably the most direct way to do that.

Also, Marek’s position @35 is abstract (I’m sorry, “intrinsic”) to the point of meaninglessness. I suppose there are or could be such imbalanced couples — I don’t know any — but are they the ones getting jobs? The trailing partner has been reviewed in some way in all of the partner hire situations I am aware of; I believe such reviews are standard practice.


Jonathan Mayhew 05.07.12 at 6:16 pm

So part of “merit” is being willing to accept a lower salary or being less likely to get an outside offer? That would seem to be the opposite of merit.


nvalvo 05.07.12 at 6:24 pm

Also: that some proponents are speaking about this in terms of gender equity does not me we should assume that the female partner in a heterosexual couple would be the trailing spouse. There is data on this in the Stanford report: long story short, the ratio is falling fast, and is now about 3:1.


Manta1976 05.07.12 at 6:28 pm

Jonathan @57: any responsible university, given 2 otherwise comparable candidates, will hire the cheaper one: so, yes, being willing to work for less is very much part of merit.
Similarly, the guy who is more likely to stick around should get preferential treatment.


piglet 05.07.12 at 6:31 pm

My university declares the following standard:

“Academic departments and administrative units must conduct a search for all faculty and non-classified positions unless the appointed position is for a year or less. As a general rule, faculty and non-classified positions must be advertised for a minimum of thirty (30) days.”

Yet I know that there are spousal hires.


TWB 05.07.12 at 6:34 pm

Piglet, that’s pretty easy to get around. They advertise the position, accept as many applications as they want, and then give the job to the spouse.


CharlieMcMenamin 05.07.12 at 6:46 pm


I have attempted to read the various comments with an open mind, but I can’t help but think there is a awfullot of special pleading going on here. I concede this may partly be because of my British perspective: we don’t have to face the tyranny of travel distances that North Americans do, as someone noted up thread. But all sorts of couples outside academia and on both sides of the Atlantic can be faced with various locational dilemmas at various stages in their careers and it is not in the least obvious to me that the way to resolve these is for one’s partner’s employer to create a job for the other person. If this sort of thing happened in the British civil service, local government, the NHS or the voluntary sector it would be called nepotism and break almost every established HR recruitment procedure I’ve ever read. I really don’t get why academic recruitment should run according to different and lower standards of probity.

Note: I’m not talking about the joint hire of two equally qualified people here, to which , as long as there is open competition for a job, no-one could possibly object. Nor am I unfamiliar with the situation where an organisation struggles so hard to find suitable people with appropriate skills that they take qualified help wherever they can find it. But I do find it difficult to swallow the idea that academics are so very, very different from us mere mortals that different rules of fairness ( or organisational efficiency) should apply to them.


leederick 05.07.12 at 6:46 pm

“Also, Marek’s position @35 is abstract (I’m sorry, “intrinsic”) to the point of meaninglessness. I suppose there are or could be such imbalanced couples — I don’t know any — but are they the ones getting jobs? The trailing partner has been reviewed in some way in all of the partner hire situations I am aware of; I believe such reviews are standard practice.”

I think you’ve misread Marek’s point. I think the concern it isn’t that inadequate people are being appointed, most people seem to agree that standards needed to do these jobs are low relative to the ability of the hiring pool. But rather that why should someone whose the spouse of a distinguised professor get a hand up while someone whose’s the spouse of an incompentent adjunct not? They both have exactly the same problems in fitting jobs around their personal relationships.

“Insofar as we are interested in advancing the position of women within the profession — which we should all be — the best way to do that is to make possible a less trying work/family balance in our fields.”

I’m all helping people balance their careers with their relationships. And I’m not committed to hiring being on personal merit. But that need to be considered much more broadly and regardless of who people’s spouses are or whether they are employed in academia. The idea that this should be done, but only if the person they’re sleeping with is important enough, is absolutely shameful.


MPAVictoria 05.07.12 at 6:49 pm

“Piglet, that’s pretty easy to get around. They advertise the position, accept as many applications as they want, and then give the job to the spouse.”

Which is a waste of time for all concerned. Just be honest about it.



CharlieMcMenamin 05.07.12 at 6:55 pm

P.S. &, just out of curiosity, how do other academics react to a colleague hired under a spousal accommodation deal? Do they really treat them as being entitled to the job, and as having been tested to do in in an open and transparent way?


Meredith 05.07.12 at 6:57 pm

Just a footnote to the comments that attest to the advantages of spousal hiring and its generally fair application in practice (however it may look in theory to outsiders). It occurs to me that most people from the Netherlands or most other parts of Europe (including Great Britain and Ireland) know in a theoretical way but may not really appreciate the vast size of the U.S. and the huge distances to be travelled, at much expense, by many commuting couples. Add to that the large number of colleges and even major universities located in rural areas without access to efficient air routes (e.g., Cornell, Dartmouth, Oberlin). This is a serious problem where I teach. Attracting talented assistant professors is not a problem, but retaining recently tenured faculty is, as the years of commuting take their toll or as couples begin to have children (which often happens shortly after tenure has been granted). Sometimes the partner elsewhere eventually moves here, but often our colleague leaves to join the partner, who usually is already working in a more urban area where greater job possibilities exist, whether our (now former) colleague is planning to leave academics and venture into the wide world of employment, or is willing to try to pick up whatever academic post she or he can find.

But spousal hiring cannot solve the problem if the partner isn’t an academic or isn’t an academic who would be competitive for a position here, or if their work isn’t relevant to higher education in some other respect. My college has a person in HR who serves as a kind of employment counsellor to partners of faculty (no one insists that they be legally married, btw). Even where retaining a person doesn’t depend on the spouse getting a good job nearby, this service is much appreciated.

All this ultimately serves not only the faculty and partner directly affected but also the college, each department and, most of all, the students.


otto 05.07.12 at 7:00 pm

“we don’t have to face the tyranny of travel distances that North Americans do, as someone noted up thread”

If you are hiring globally, as you should be, your staff are indeed facing these challenges. And the issue arises from the particularity of the geographical monopolies in higher education that do not exist in the other examples you discuss.


otto 05.07.12 at 7:07 pm

Again, contra Meredith, this is not a US-only problem. If you are running a European department, and you are hiring globally, it’s very easy to have a majority of your department whose partners are based in other EU and non-EU countries. Of course, if you mostly hire local insiders, the problem is not so intense.


Salient 05.07.12 at 7:19 pm

Am I wrong to be picking up on a presumption that the not-most-meritorious applicant for a position is getting deemed non-meritorious? It’s as if only the deemed-very-best person ought to be eligible for the position, and hiring anyone else on the short list would be inappropriate. This is the specific craziness that absolutist meritocracy produces: candidate #2 is wildly unacceptable for the position and it would be unjust to hire her/him… until the moment candidate #1 bows out, at which point it would be unjust to hire anyone else. In that model, if the very best person decides to take an offer elsewhere, shouldn’t all current applicants be discarded so a new search can start from scratch? Yet it’s standard practice to respond to an offer refusal by extending an offer to the next person in line, who has suddenly gone from being an unjust choice to the only just choice.

Am I alone in finding this very weird? The fear of sometimes hiring someone incompetent (or less competent) seems to completely eclipse any rationale for reforming employment practice. It’s a bit like letting the fear of releasing a dangerous person sometimes, eclipse any rationale for reforming a penal code. Why are we assuming the spouse can’t fulfill the job duties reliably and well? Can we reasonably and reliably assume that most of the spouses who seek or accept such a position are incompetent for the role? Does it really matter that much if they are quite competent, but not superlatively meritorious?

I just think there’s too much focus on what can happen in a worst-case scenario at the individual level, not enough focus on how we distribute productive employment on a larger scale (with some tolerance for individual anomalies). We’re willing to tolerate massive waste in which nearly half the household members in this category are stuck accepting underproductive work for which their talent is undercompensated, essentially so that we have fewer instances of someone inadequate filling a prefabricated position.

But my anti-meritocratic take probably writes itself from that point forward so I’ll stop droning on about it, and just say this is another example of circumstances in which individually rational merit hiring decisions produce large-scale social deprivation by condemning an entire subpopulation to socially unproductive life (i.e., what mpowell said).

When it comes to public academic institutions, there’s another issue underlying this that deserves to be teased out. The burden is apparently on the potential employee’s ability to fulfill pre-specified job requirements, not on the employer’s ability to provide productive and engaging work for those who are excellently well capable of contributing to that employer’s community and mission. That’s inevitable without substantial reform, but also, it’s stupid. We shouldn’t be disparaging the practice of couples-hiring in public institution hiring practices, we should practically be coercing it.

Expecting an employer to be capable of providing productive and engaging work to individuals who are well-trained in the relevant field and have proved themselves competent enough to accomplish a professional degree is, like, the most basic and easiest demand we can make of our public institutions. Put people to work productively. Provide them with a professional conduit through which they can contribute their labor to society, and be adequately compensated for that contribution. Grow the community. If we can’t even ask this of our public institutions, then FFS fuck it, let’s sell them all off to private investors and be done with the charade already. We’re halfway there with transferring the burden of paying for education to the students receiving it; let’s finish torching the place already.

Either the public sector has a strong fundamental responsibility to put talented individuals in positions where their talents can provide social benefit, which includes a responsibility to connect a talented individual with a community needing that talent by way of providing employment… or the public sector is just another private sector nonprofit partially funded by taxes. If not for this responsibility, what’s the difference between the mission of a public university and the mission of a private university with equal clout?

If “we hired this couple as part of our commitment to grow the community of scholarship” is unacceptable–and especially if “we created a position through which this person now joining our community will be able to contribute to it” is unacceptable–then we’re thinking too much about the individual’s responsibility to civil society, not enough on what civil societies are supposed to be providing to their communities. Which is fine… if the difference between the public sector and private sector is only supposed to be what shows up on their accounts payable balance sheets.


J. Otto Pohl 05.07.12 at 7:20 pm

My impression is that EU institutions do not hire much outside of the EU due to strict requirements that they must prove that there are no citizens of EU countries capable of doing the job before they can hire outside the EU. This requirement effectively bans the vast majority of non-EU academics from working at EU institutions. So they are not really hiring globally except for in quite specialized areas. My supervisor at SOAS was an American and there was also an Australian in the Near and Middle East Section of the History Department. But, all the others in the section were EU citizens, British, German, and Italian. My department currently hires globally, but that is only because it is very easy to prove that there are not enough qualified Ghanaians available to fill these positions.


otto 05.07.12 at 7:27 pm

“due to strict requirements that they must prove that there are no citizens of EU countries capable of doing the job before they can hire outside the EU”

IIRC, such rules are decided at the level of the various Member State and vary a lot from one place to another. Even for EU states where such a rule exists, hiring on an EU-wide basis would easily produce partner issues to rival those in the US.


TWB 05.07.12 at 7:31 pm

“due to strict requirements that they must prove that there are no citizens of EU countries capable of doing the job before they can hire outside the EU”

That’s way, way less fair than hiring spouses.


Bruce Cohen 05.07.12 at 7:32 pm

My older son and his wife were both assistant professors of psychology. They were offered tenure track positions in the same department at two universities (in the USA), so clearly it’s not an uncommon practice, even at the lower levels of the ladder.


TWB 05.07.12 at 7:39 pm

Re Salient (@74)

I sense the same kind of assumption that you do, but there are a few particulars about the academic job market that might warrant extreme meritocracy.

1. If universities are free to hire anyone who is qualified to do a job, rather than the person who is most qualified, then the academic job market is essentially random – anyone with a PhD has the same chances of landing a job as anyone else with a PhD. There is no reason to expect that hard work and brilliant research will improve one’s chances. Nobody wants to believe that is the case (although to some extent, it already is). If the academic job market was any good this objection would not be very persuasive, because most people would find a job anyway.

2. One expects universities (and other employers) to make the most out of their opportunity to fill a position by hiring the best-qualified person they can. Why wouldn’t they? Why would they settle for a less-well-qualified person, even if that person could do the job?


CharlieMcMenamin 05.07.12 at 7:40 pm

Just quickly on the global hiring point: I don’t buy this at all. There *is* a global market for very high powered academics of course, as for some other professions (soccer players, musicians and, more dubiously, CEOs of large corporations). This layer of people is extremely small. It’s needs really doesn’t justify fucking around with the basic fairness rules that apply to the rest of us which are, or should be, about recruiting according to defined competencies in open competition.


otto 05.07.12 at 7:47 pm

If I had to guestimate, I would say that there is something approximating a global market for nearly all tenure track positions at nearly all research universities in OECD countries (with some language constraints, and some/too much insider advantages in some places). The international academic market is not just about “very high powered academics” who are the equivalent of top footie players.


J. Otto Pohl 05.07.12 at 7:48 pm

There is a global market for run of the mill academics. It is just not in Europe. It is in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia.


Manta1976 05.07.12 at 7:49 pm

I think spouse hiring can be considered as “in kind” compensation: a candidate, instead of asking for a higher salary, asks that its spouse also gets a job.


John Quiggin 05.07.12 at 7:51 pm

Another instance of spousal hiring, probably unfamiliar to most readers, is for managing cattle stations in Australia. The location problems are similar, and advertisements often state a preference/option to hire a couple.


Salient 05.07.12 at 7:54 pm

If universities are free to hire anyone who is qualified to do a job, rather than the person who is most qualified, then the academic job market is essentially random

Wait, that’s not true. We’re talking about potentially modifying and expanding the set of criteria we use to rank candidates, to include a few other characteristics. We’re not talking about rolling dice.

There is no reason to expect that hard work and brilliant research will improve one’s chances.

With apologies for basically saying the same thing twice, modifying and expanding the set of criteria we use to rank candidates is not the same thing as abandoning perfectly sensible criteria.

It’s needs really doesn’t justify fucking around with the basic fairness rules that apply to the rest of us which are, or should be, about recruiting according to defined competencies in open competition.

As a council rep I’ve gotten the chance to sit in on many of the decision-making meetings of faculty regarding open positions. Every single time there was quick agreement that there weren’t any significant disparities in research quality between the short-listed candidates, and the decision was made entirely on who seemed like they would be the best “cultural fit” at the university/department. While I wasn’t privy (as a grad student) to some of the meetings or conversations, it was pretty clear the judgments at that point were purely qualitative, heavily subjective, and hotly contested between faculty members who felt differently about different candidates. It was pure feeling and competing self-interests at that point.

Saying that hiring practice anywhere is reliably selecting “according to defined competencies in open competition” is ignoring what always happens once you’ve whittled applicants down to a short list of candidates: subjective and purely qualitative judgment of which person you feel most right about. It’s at that late stage most of all where I’m advocating for systematic changes in practice, and pretending that stage doesn’t exist does nobody’s case justice.


peterv 05.07.12 at 7:58 pm

The British Foreign Office not only accommodates spouses, it even allows them to job-share, as for example with Jonathan Aves and his wife Katherine Leach, who apparently take it in 4-monthly turns being the UK Ambassador to Armenia.


leederick 05.07.12 at 7:59 pm

“I think spouse hiring can be considered as “in kind” compensation: a candidate, instead of asking for a higher salary, asks that its spouse also gets a job.”

If the relationship between the two deteriorates, would you be happy with the spouse being sacked or made redundant?


peterv 05.07.12 at 8:00 pm

Forgot to add: The UK High Commissioner to Zambia is arranged similarly, the post also shared by a married couple.


John Quiggin 05.07.12 at 8:02 pm

@CharlieMcMenamin This isn’t true at all. I’m at Australian university (good, but not Harvard or Yale), and we do all our hiring on the global job market – something of a misnomer, because it’s dominated by the US market centred on the annual meetings of the AEA.

I moved here from within Australia, and a few others have done so, but we haven’t hired a truly local person (that is, one with no need to move to take up the job) in years.


CharlieMcMenamin 05.07.12 at 8:02 pm


Job shares are fine. They’re not that unusual over here in the UK, though admittedly I’ve never heard of one involving spouses before. But how does the FO ‘accommodate’ spouses in the sense we’ve been discussing?


peterv 05.07.12 at 8:06 pm

SusanC at #46:

“But Universities really aren’t rational utility-maximising agents. They are inefficient bureacracies, with a general principle that procedural rules must always be followed, even when doing so will cost the University a significant amount of money.”

In my experience, universities operate with a general principle that procedural rules must always BE SEEN TO BE followed, which may be something quite different. This usually allows scope for achieving any pre-selected outcome desired by the administrative hierarchs, as some of the examples above attest.


Neville Morley 05.07.12 at 8:10 pm

My other half isn’t an academic, and even so the thought of the disruption entailed in her having to find a new job has been a major disincentive to my applying elsewhere; I can only imagine the strains on the relationship when both partners are academics, and my department has lost a few good people who moved to places where they thought they stood a better chance of finding two suitable jobs. We’ve also lost a couple of really excellent female colleagues whose non-academic husbands weren’t prepared to commute so insisted on their spouses moving…

At the same time, it’s all too easy to imagine how a spousal appointment can become a problem in straitened times: a department loses someone to retirement and can’t replace them because money’s tight and they’re already one person over the normal complement because the professor’s other half came as part of the package – which isn’t to say that that person isn’t fully qualified, but they might not be exactly the person the department really needs at that point. Even worse when (as happened in at least one case I know of) the spousal appointment was made but then the spouse decided to stay put…


piglet 05.07.12 at 8:13 pm

What is hard to overcome is the arbitrariness of the process. Will they create a position for the spouse of the newly hired provost? Oh sure. Will they do the same for the talented early career faculty and his/her talented spouse? Hardly. In general, spousal hires will mostly benefit older and already established academics.


piglet 05.07.12 at 8:20 pm

I actually think that job-sharing in academia would often be a good solution – many academic couples are in closely related fields – but sadly afaik it is never considered.


peterv 05.07.12 at 8:24 pm

CharlieMcMenamin at # 80

Some facts:

There are university departments of mathematics in Britain where the British citizens are in a minority of the academic staff. One department I know has a majority of Russian speakers – people who are (or were) citizens of states of the former USSR.

A recent advertisement I know of for an entry-level lectureship (assistant professorship) in a science subject at a British university had over 80 qualified applicants (ie, having a PhD in the relevant discipline). This list was short-listed down to 6 candidates – citizens of Britain, the Netherlands, Germany (2), Hong Kong and the USA.

Not a global market?


Manta1976 05.07.12 at 8:25 pm

leederick @87: I did not think about that aspect, but if the spouse is up to the job, he/she should be retained; if not, not.


otto 05.07.12 at 8:25 pm

Only 80?


peterv 05.07.12 at 8:29 pm

Otto: 80-something with PhDs in the subject. More without.


Marc 05.07.12 at 8:37 pm

I think that people are operating under a misconception, namely that there is some generic absolute quality standard for creative academic work. The problem that you face is that you end up comparing people whose work, in practice, is simply quite different – and that the people involved are simply talented in different ways.

In astronomy, for example, there are observers, instrument-builders, and theorists. There are people who work on planets, stars, galaxies, or large scale structure and all other things in between. It’s a lot like trying to evaluate artists. In this circumstance a spousal hire would usually be someone who is quite good – people get diverted out of highly competitive fields unless they’re talented – but perhaps not in a area that you would have identified as a priority.

We’ve been on both sides of this (getting spouses in our department and having spouses in other departments), and they’ve been extremely successful for us. Truly creative and smart people frequently partner with other creative and smart people.


CharlieMcMenamin 05.07.12 at 9:33 pm

Basic rule: when arguing a major point, gracefully concede if someone knocks down one of the supporting pieces of evidence you put forward. So I concede practicing academics know more about the academic job market and its global character than I do, and hence withdraw my previous statement on this front (although I do wonder if ‘global’ always quite equates to ‘Anglosphere’; I can certainly imagine subject areas where it didn’t).

But my basic point remains. Lots of couples have problems co-ordinating their career choices, including academics whose partners are in a different profession. Often this means one (or, often, both) sticking in jobs they want to leave or forgoing promotions. That is life, and I don’t think one can load onto any particular employer the responsibility for sorting it out. So why should things be any different for couples where both partners are academics?


John Quiggin 05.07.12 at 9:58 pm

Here’s another way to think about the merit issue, perhaps more useful than the ‘trailing spouse’ frame. Suppose you have two jobs to fill and you get an application from a two-person team on the condition “take both of us or neither”. The two-person team is better than any two people you could hire separately, even though it might be possible to get someone better than one member of the team.

In this case, appointing on merit requires that you hire the team, but appointing on *individual* merit means you’ll fill the positions separately.

@piglet – my limited experience suggests the opposite. Spousal hire is most common for early career appointments, for the reason suggested above – lots of couples who have met in graduate school, and are both looking for an academic job. With older academics, the spouse is less likely to be looking for an academic job. That’s partly a generation thing, but mostly, I think to do with the fact that peoples lives change over time.


John Quiggin 05.07.12 at 10:04 pm

On the Anglosphere issue, although we (Uni of Queensland economics, but true of Oz econ departments generally) largely hire US-trained PhDs on the US job market, we almost never hire (US-born) Americans, primarily because they have a strong preference to remain in the US, and, of course, no visa problems that might stop them doing so.


Alex 05.07.12 at 10:11 pm

The points made by CharlieMcMenamin (#100) are valid. It is certainly not the university’s responsibility to sort out the joint-search constraints of the applicants. Rather, I think the relevant issue is that, as a number of posts suggest, it may be advantageous to the University to provide spousal accommodation as it increases its ability to attract and retain talent. American universities appear (increasingly) to recognise this (inclusively in the context of the junior academic market); European universities, it seems, not so much.


Colin Danby 05.07.12 at 10:29 pm

Stanley Fish had a CHE piece on this a decade or so back from a recruiting standpoint, but I can’t find a url, only a reference to it here:

Also ran across:


mpowell 05.07.12 at 10:54 pm

Salient: I’ve been waiting for you to chime in on this post to criticize the obsession with merit on display based on our previous lengthy conversation about merit. As you can see, I share your preference to elevate other values over individual merit with regards to this issue.


leederick 05.07.12 at 11:43 pm

“Rather, I think the relevant issue is that, as a number of posts suggest, it may be advantageous to the University to provide spousal accommodation as it increases its ability to attract and retain talent. American universities appear (increasingly) to recognise this…”

I think that’s right. If people want to demand favours for their friends and relatives in return for something, what we should consider is whether after providing these the situation is still a net benefit for us, and if it is we should do exactly what they want. It’s not really our place to consider the value of social norms against corruption or nepotism, or to worry about maintaining these. If someone has something we want we should just look at the immediate advantage that can be gained from acquiescing to them.

I should also say it’s not just in faculty retention that American universities are leagues ahead of their European conterparts. I really admire their willingness to supply college athletics recruits with drugs and hookers in order to get and keep the right people on the pitch. The old world certainly has a lot to learn from them.


F 05.07.12 at 11:44 pm

Because it is in the best interests of academic institutions to do so.

An obsession with merit also drives another bad phenomenon in faculty hiring (at least in science). Everyone wants only the best candidate. Determining the best candidate is hard and somewhat subjective. Many people don’t trust their own judgement. So what happens is that one candidate will start getting a few top offers. When that happens, everyone else decides they want that person too. So one person sweeps up all the offers, while the remaining well-qualified candidates have to sit around and wait for that person to decide and start turning down offers.


Marc 05.08.12 at 12:57 am

There is one important mechanical aspect that folks outside the US system may not be aware of: universities will almost never make a hiring decision without the approval of the relevant department. If you’re hiring in History, and there is a spouse who is in Chemistry, then it is the *Chemistry* department that decided whether they want to make an offer. If the chemist isn’t very good they won’t get one, full stop. The university can make it attractive for chemistry (e.g. the position is “free” to you), but departments aren’t going to bring mediocre people intentionally. After all, we have to live (for decades) with people who get hired, whether they cost us money or not.


Linnaeus 05.08.12 at 1:30 am

Marc @108 wrote:

If you’re hiring in History, and there is a spouse who is in Chemistry, then it is the Chemistry department that decided whether they want to make an offer.

This is exactly how it played out in a faculty search for which I was on the committee (my department has graduate student representation on faculty search committees). The person who was our first choice had a spouse who was an academic in another field, and would not come unless the spouse could get a job at our university in the relevant department. The other department said no, we can’t make room for the spouse, so our preferred candidate went to another university that did hire the spouse.


gfa 05.08.12 at 1:56 am

Piglet @94 writes: “I actually think that job-sharing in academia would often be a good solution … but sadly afaik it is never considered.”

It does sometimes happen (or something similar happens). I know of one couple who is currently sharing one position. My spouse and I are currently sharing 1.6 positions (the usual teaching load at our school is 5 courses, so we each get 80%). A grad school friend of mine and his spouse are splitting 1.5 positions. And my spouse was told, during campus interviews, that the two of us could split a position if she were hired (but that there was no way they could find a second full position for me). (They knew I existed because I was already in a TT job.)

These are anecdotes, but they do show that position-sharing is sometimes considered.


Jonathan Mayhew 05.08.12 at 1:57 am

As to the “obsession with merit” I think it is a function of a few factors. If we get 100 applicants for a job we want to think that the person we hire is not a dud. It seems counterintuitive not to end up with someone really, really good, not merely qualified. A lot of effort goes into that process of selection. Also, the person might be with you a long time. Smart departments can hire spousal teams with two brilliant people who wouldn’t otherwise have come. In doing so they are not lowering their standards for merit. But I also think it a mistake to dismiss concern with merit in this kind of hiring practice.


Alex 05.08.12 at 2:24 am

Here’s a link to the “Recommendations on Partner Accommodation and Dual Career Appointments (2010)” from the American Association of University Professors, which may be of interest.


Uncle Milton 05.08.12 at 3:08 am

There’s a distinction to be made between (a) hiring a star and also hiring the spouse, in order to seal the deal with the star and (b) hiring both halves together.

The former is not uncommon; the non-star spouse is often given a second-class non tenure title like “senior lecturer”.

The latter also happens quite frequently; for example, two new PhDs who meet and marry (or partner up) while in graduate school, and then go out onto the market as a joint product, as it were.

If they are being hired in a city with multiple universities, they can end up in different places. Recently in the NYT wedding announcements was the case of two about-to-finish graduate students. The bride was completing a PhD at Harvard and this fall will be an assistant professor at MIT. The groom was completing a PhD at MIT and this fall will be an assistant professor at Harvard. Now, [I]that[/I] is an efficient labor market at work.


dr ngo 05.08.12 at 4:26 am

No personal knowledge of the spousal hiring situation (though I’ve known a few such couples, e.g., Charles & Louise Tilly), since my wife is not an academic. But I thought I might share an anecdote from almost thirty years ago, involving my potential hire at the University of Hawai’i – excellent in my field, but not known for lucrative salaries.

At my interview, the very first question I was asked was “Is your wife a US citizen?” This struck me as odd, even though, as a matter of fact, many men in my field are married to non-citizens. I asked why, and the interviewer said (I paraphrase): “The salary we can afford, if you get the offer, is so pitiful that you can’t survive unless your wife is gets a job too, and sometimes non-citizens can’t get work permits.”

Although my wife is American, and thus might have found a job in Honolulu, I withdrew my application.


BruceJ 05.08.12 at 4:39 am

In my own deprtment I’ve seen it twice, once as a husband/wife team of academics, (and who were hired as a couple, not as one following the other, but definitely equals. Not so coincidentally, they also brought in a married couple assistants/lab managers who have followed them through through (now) three universities) and a department head, one of whose conditions for accepting the position was a job for her spouse at the University (in an entirely different, non-academic department). In both cases the spouse was more than qualified for the position.. (and the department head has moved on, as has her husband, who now has a position at the new university she’s working for…)

But this was at department head/endowed chair levels of entry. New professors? Not a chance…


js. 05.08.12 at 4:48 am

the non-star spouse is often given a second-class non tenure title like “senior lecturer”

This actually seems pretty fancy. The rather few cases I know like this have involved the “non-star spouse” ending up as a more-or-less permanent adjunct (unless of course their “non-star” status somehow changes). Perhaps not quite fair, but hardly enviable.


Manta1976 05.08.12 at 8:27 am

Regarding CharlieMcMenamin @100: my impression is that in Europe Britain has an “global” job market for academics, but other European countries (say, Germany, France, Italy) much less so, and that one reason is the language (everybody speaks English, but how many non-Germans speak German?).


Ingrid Robeyns 05.08.12 at 9:15 am

Manta1976 @117: I think that impression is roughly correct — though there are countries in continental Europe that are more open to those who don’t speak the local language — but generally such academics are given three years to learn the local language. We have in the Netherlands many German philosophers, for example, most of whom have learnt Dutch; and my impression from the natural and life sciences is that people can have a whole career here without learning Dutch. It all depends on whether undergraduate teaching is in the local language or not, and my hunch is also that the humanities are more keen on people knowing or learning the local language then the natural and life sciences (with the social sciences somewhere in between).


Ingrid Robeyns 05.08.12 at 9:17 am

I just deleted a (rude) comment from the moderation queue from someone not giving a valid email address; please check our comments policy on top of the page.


Barry 05.08.12 at 1:27 pm

Manta1976 05.07.12 at 2:43 pm

” An easy way to solve the “fairness” problem would be to give the job to the qualified person who asks the least money.”

That’s one way to do it, and I’m sure many colleges do just that. Those colleges are also podunk, and will stay that way.


mpowell 05.08.12 at 3:27 pm


It’s not really our place to consider the value of social norms against corruption or nepotism, or to worry about maintaining these.

This just assumes the conclusion: that spousal accomodation is a form of corruption or nepotism. In certain cases, it certainly could be. But if we consider the typical case, the value to the employer of creating a position for a spouse may be very close to the actual cost in salary. I think the burden is on those who oppose this practice to describe what is so corrupt about it. This is fundamentally different than a powerful person in an organization using their influence to get favors for another that are entirely mismatched with that other person’s skillset. It is a way of hiding a person’s true level of compensation and creates negative externalities for the people having to work with the inadequate hire. In reasonable cases of spousal accomodation we are discussing qualified candidates and simply using the hiring metric of “providing both halves of a couple meaningful employment opportunties” instead of the metric of “most qualified candidate based on our fairly arbitrary normal selection process”. As I indicated earlier, I think this practice is very likely to be socially beneficial.


Pete 05.08.12 at 4:18 pm

I wonder what the effect of this policy is on the ethnicity distribution of academia?


CharlieMcMenamin 05.08.12 at 4:38 pm

#121 I think the burden is on those who oppose this practice to describe what is so corrupt about it.

How do you know:
(i) In the ‘typical case’ of spousal accommodation the benefit to the employer roughly equals out to the salary?
(ii)That most academics that pair with their co-academics pair off with people of obviously similar skills, or skills which just so happen to magically match the requirements of the academic’s employer?
(iii) The normal selection process is ‘fairly arbitrary’ or, in any event, less objective than simply giving people a job because of who they live with?

So ,no, I think the burden is on advocates of spousal accommodation to show that it isn’t nepotistic.


Manta1976 05.08.12 at 5:09 pm

Charlie, the form of spousal accommodation discussed here is NOT nepotism, for the following reason: the person who get hired says in advance that he wants/prefer that his spouse to also get a job; if the people hiring him do not think they get enough value for the money, they can hire someone else (and they usually have plenty of choices).

Nepotism would be if a professor hired his spouse after he got the job (and that does happen).

If (as it happens) the benefit to the employer is not roughly greater or equal to the salary, the employer is doing a poor job, which, in case of hiring committees, may also mean that it is corrupt; but there is nothing intrinsically corrupt in paying someone via benefits (hiring the spouse, in this case), rather than hard money.


Kenny Easwaran 05.08.12 at 5:31 pm

#123 – So ,no, I think the burden is on advocates of spousal accommodation to show that it isn’t nepotistic.

It’s certainly not possible to do this in general. As people have pointed out, it is certainly conceivable that some such hires are nepotistic.

However, in most cases where this happens, there is an independent investigation of the qualifications of the spousal hire. As Marc at 108 mentioned, when the spouse is in a separate department, the other department normally is offered the candidate as a potential hire and decides whether they think this person is likely to be qualified for tenure in the department.

It may be that in some cases there is unfair nepotism at work. The practice as it’s set up right now normally requires an investigation to show that each individual case is not nepotistic. To ban the practice entirely on the other hand, I think one would need to show that it is nepotism in a very substantial number of cases.

(I don’t know what “a very substantial number” would need to be here. But the point is just that current evaluation proceeds on a case-by-case basis, which doesn’t require the general proof that Charlie McMenamin wants.)


Salient 05.08.12 at 5:36 pm

I think the burden is on advocates of spousal accommodation to show that it isn’t nepotistic.

I know arguing from definitions can be stupid, but here I think it’s necessary. Nepotism is extending an offer of lucrative employment to one’s family members. The people hired under spousal accommodation are relatives of the applicant, not relatives of the employer. This sounds finicky but it’s important; nepotism is a problem because it’s an abuse of the public trust committed by an authority figure, allowing an incompetent or inadequate person to occupy a role that society needs competently and adequately filled.

You shrug off the guarantee of mass underemployment with a pithy “That is life,” as if it’s not only acceptable, but also unavoidable, that this exists all throughout society. Is this a chronic social problem that needs to be addressed, in your view? Is this not a problem that public-sector employment is perfectly set up to solve?

I’m thinking maybe you don’t support spousal accommodation creating or filling a tenure-track research position, but would be more inclined to support the practice more broadly, perhaps with public-private partnerships finding employment outside the university. (This says more about the scarcity of research positions than it does about hiring practice.) What concerns me is that it sounds like you’re basically saying, “Spouse can’t find a job? Well tough shit, deal with it like everyone else.” On an individual level this is just callous, but on a social level it’s pernicious. Society suffers quite a lot from losing talented people’s work to this scenario, and I’d welcome alternative proposals for what action the public sector can take to recoup that talent.


ptl 05.08.12 at 5:37 pm

124. Yes, it isn’t nepotism. I do though think it comes perilously close to corruption, and where not that, unfairness. All the demonstrations and arguments here that the notion of merit is elastic/that value may be added in various ways/that etc. etc. (arguments with which I agree) don’t IMO justify the “spousal accommodation” hiring of a spouse unless they actually are more or less qualified as other competing candidates. After all, spouses aren’t the only people who may find it difficult to move city for a job. Single parents, or other single people caring for elderly relatives, may well find it equally different. And they are likely to have less money.

mpowell, reasonable spousal accommodation — open competition for existing posts, with a ceteris paribus preference for a spouse — is of course fine; who could not support that?


Manta1976 05.08.12 at 5:44 pm

Phil, Salient @126 in the first paragraph explained it better, but let’s try with an example: if you were the owner of some company, and a candidate said that he would be willing to accept to work for you, on condition that you also hire his spouse, would you refuse it _a priori_, even if the deal made economic sense (i.e.: value of couple > salary you pay to them)?


Pete 05.08.12 at 6:00 pm

More concretely, if I were a person of ethnic minority status, who had interviewed for an academic job, and the job was subsequently given to the white spouse of another hire, please explain how you’d prove that wasn’t racial discrimination?


Manta1976 05.08.12 at 6:05 pm

Is this some kind of game, Pete? If you were married to some “top” scholar, then you would have got the job: race is inessential.


Norwegian Guy 05.08.12 at 6:06 pm

“but there is nothing intrinsically corrupt in paying someone via benefits (hiring the spouse, in this case), rather than hard money.”

How are you going to report that benefit to the tax authorities? Perhaps not corruption, but it could be a form of tax avoidance or even fraud.


RM-S 05.08.12 at 6:06 pm

The State Department does this for foreign service officers; if both are FSOs, they are deployed together, irrespective of the normal circulation calendar, and if one is not, the local embassy uses local connections to find a position, or simply hires him/her themselves. Obviously, this is more possible for some careers than others; there is little need for a criminal prosecutor in a foreign embassy.


Manta1976 05.08.12 at 6:27 pm

Norwegian, the same thing can be said about having a nice office, a secretary, light teaching duties, interesting colleagues, smart students…


Sumana Harihareswara 05.08.12 at 6:50 pm

I have sometimes thought about the value of diversifying one’s portfolio, regarding a household’s dependence on diverse skills and industries and employers. For example, although my partner and I are of different job-types, we both work in the same industry, and have deliberately avoided ever working for the same employer, to minimize the chance that some sudden wave will worsen or remove both our jobs at once.

Both of us are accustomed to telecommuting full-time, which is simply not an option for most career academics (as I infer from the discussion in this thread in which no one mentions the possibility of remote work).


Salient 05.08.12 at 6:51 pm

I’m a lot less comfortable with a job offer for the spouse of a bigshot being treated as additional benefits or compensation for the bigshot. It sounds vaguely patriarchal, it makes less sense than just offering a higher salary to the bigshot, and it seems like it would doom the spouse to an unproductive position without substantial duties, which shoots the “recoup productivity losses” goal in the foot.


Marc 05.08.12 at 7:00 pm

@129: Spousal hires are almost never for existing positions – they fall under a category called “target of opportunity” more typically. It isn’t that the spouse is getting an open position that someone else could compete for; it’s that the university is willing to create a new position for a sufficiently qualified pair of scholars.

It is pretty unlikely that you’ll happen to have simultaneous targeted searches in two disciplines that happen to correspond to the specialties of a couple.


krippendorf 05.08.12 at 7:12 pm

“All the demonstrations and arguments here that the notion of merit is elastic/that value may be added in various ways/that etc. etc. (arguments with which I agree) don’t IMO justify the “spousal accommodation” hiring of a spouse unless they actually are more or less qualified as other competing candidates.”

And I don’t think anyone has argued that spouses should be or are hired if they aren’t “more or less [as] qualified as other competing candidates.” As someone upthread pointed out, the department that’s hiring the spouse, whether it’s the same department that is making the focal hire or a different unit, has to agree to the hire. In my experience, departments won’t agree unless the spouse is above the bar, however that is defined by local practice, because there are simply too many long-term costs to the department to doing so. (Even if the line is “free,” a fiction in academic budgets if ever there was one.)

Could departments “do better,” by hiring two unrelated and unattached faculty? In some cases yes, in other cases no. Moreover, it’s extremely hard to predict in advance, because the total value added of two faculty is based on two conditional probabilities of future success that are unknown and noisy. But for many universities, the alternative is to go back to disproportionately hiring single faculty or faculty with stay-at-home spouses, which in practice still means disproportionately hiring single men or men with stay-at-home wives. After all, as a engineering friend heard in her department’s search committee meeting *this year*: “men are just easier to hire.”


js. 05.08.12 at 8:50 pm

A few people (including myself) have already pointed this out, but just to repeat:

Universities very often don’t simply try to hire “the most qualified” candidate (assuming such even exists). They try to hire “the best qualified candidate” that they have the best chance of retaining over the medium-term. So, really even though krippendorf is right, it’s actually even less clear whether departments could “do better”.


CharlieMcMenamin 05.08.12 at 9:27 pm

It’s a very long time ago (#14) that I made clear that I’m (a) British, not North American and (b) not an academic, although partnered with one. I also (#67) made clear that my normative standards for these things are the norms of the UK public and voluntary sectors.

Now, I’m not suggesting this is the only perspective or only standard from which to look at these things. Certainly, I accept that the sheer distance involved in North American re-location – and, by extension, academic re-location in the Anglosphere if not globally – confuses matters at the edges. But it doesn’t do any more than dent the basic principles I subscribe too.

As a non academic, I can’t quite believe the strength of feeling of the arguments put forward to defend which seem to me to be basically an ‘old Spanish practice’ (as the Right used to say of Fleet Street Union defined procedure). No one has convincing put forward any parallels from other industries. I know, for example, that the BBC World Service doesn’t create jobs for partners of its overseas correspondents even if they happen to be journalists as well. (Though some may independently find ancillary or freelance work – equivalent to non tenure track if you like – in the country where the correspondent is based, perhaps even for the WS itself.)

Tell me: why should academia be different?


leederick 05.08.12 at 9:32 pm

“So, really even though krippendorf is right, it’s actually even less clear whether departments could “do better”.”

I can’t reconcile this argument with the admissions we’ve already had that in practice departments don’t even try to do better, e.g. Marc @ 136. They don’t look. They create positions for which one person is exclusively considered. So is the actual claim that not only is it possible that you couldn’t do better, but in fact people can be so sure of this there’s no need for a search or to test your opinion against the market? Looks to me this is at best willful blindness, at worst overconfidence in your own judgement verging on incompetence, or just excuse making for cronyism.


sanbikinoraion 05.08.12 at 10:25 pm

Charlie @ 139 (ish…)

The UN routinely pays an additional allowance to staff posted to foreign climes if they are married and taking their partner. Would it be better or worse if the UN required the partner to work for that allowance…?

(FWIW my gut feeling is much the same as yours, BTW, that spousal hiring in academia is at least a little odd; those people saying “they create the position for the new hire” don’t seem to have considered where the money for that position has come from; presumably, by eating up one department or the other’s headcount, and so depriving another non-married person of a job. You can be cool with that or not as you wish, but the money doesn’t appear out of thin air. Unless you’re Harvard…)


Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa 05.08.12 at 10:43 pm

My wife and I, both philosophers, recently left the UK and moved to Canada, chiefly because we wanted to live together, and saw no prospects for making that happen in the UK. (Our plight was one of a few featured in a Guardian story a few years ago.) Shortly after that story, my wife was recruited and hired at a Canadian university; I was a spousal hire, first as a postdoc. Within our first year, I was offered an assistant professorship; some external market pressure was relevant in this latter case, as we had some shortlistings and job offers at other institutions.

I won’t pretend to have an objective perspective on the moral/fairness question, although I’ll go ahead and register, perhaps unsurprisingly, that I don’t think the practice of spousal hiring is objectionable. As a matter of practicality, I certainly think that it is sometimes in a department’s interest to take these on such considerations. Just about any couple will keep looking for a better arrangement until jobs together are found, and it’s better for a department when its members are not trying to leave.

I’ll also offer a single data point, from the perspective of a very recent spousal hire, that in my case, I haven’t experienced the slightest sense of stigma at having been hired into a line that was not advertised, partly in order to retain my wife. I feel valued and respected, and I don’t perceive that people think less of me for the genesis of my post.


peterv 05.08.12 at 11:19 pm

CharlieMcMenamin at #139:

Tell me: why should academia be different?”

Since finding a post for a spouse in order to attract a desirable candidate to take a position is rational, self-interested (utility-maximising) behaviour by universities, the onus is surely on you to explain why other employers do not do this.


BillCinSD 05.09.12 at 12:24 am

I know of a successful US company that often (although not exclusively) hired (after assuring basic competence) based on basketball playing ability. In many small towns, I know of small, local companies that hired based on the children of the hirees being good athletes. Companies hire for all sorts of reasons because they all define merit differently. I just don’t see how that is any different than spousal accommodation.


Sebastian H 05.09.12 at 1:15 am

“Spousal hires are almost never for existing positions – they fall under a category called “target of opportunity” more typically. It isn’t that the spouse is getting an open position that someone else could compete for; it’s that the university is willing to create a new position for a sufficiently qualified pair of scholars.”

This seems incomplete. What departments are we talking about that have so much money sitting around doing nothing special that they can just create an entire new position for somebody without it negatively impacting someone else? Are these teaching positions? So they are creating entirely new courses, not taught by anyone else, and are expecting that they will have sufficient students? That seems unlikely. Are these research positions? So they are creating entirely new research positions, filling an actual need in the department but which was going to lie fallow if this person didn’t come along? And the money isn’t going to come from anyone else’s allotment, nor subtract from anyone else’s headcount? I’m not even sure I would believe that from Yale or Harvard, and it is completely unbelievable for any normal university. What happened to all the worrying talk about budget and staff cuts we have been hearing about?

These types of arrangements are almost certainly, for all but the very richest universities, taking someone else’s job. Maybe that is totally defensible and totally ok. But let’s not fool ourselves about what is happening. The spousal hire is getting a plus for being married to someone important to the university. They are getting the job over someone who wasn’t attractive enough to someone important to the university.

“Since finding a post for a spouse in order to attract a desirable candidate to take a position is rational, self-interested (utility-maximising) behaviour by universities, the onus is surely on you to explain why other employers do not do this.”

Other employers don’t typically do this because it creates horrible morale issues with co-workers who suspect that the person wasn’t up to snuff.


Marc 05.09.12 at 4:03 am

Sebastian: the university administration has a pool of money that it can use to fund new initiatives at the department level. Where does the money come from? The same place where faculty can get start-up packages. The same place where faculty get raises when they get offers to go somewhere else. The same place where you get funding for a new interdisciplinary group or a new building.

Individual departments typically have a fairly complex way of establishing need. There is a global cost, of course- but there is also a global benefit. Departments still have to do quality control on their faculty, spouse or no; the spouses need to face the same tenure and promotion as anyone else. Department A doesn’t have any real power over department B on issues like that. Having more faculty in a given department may end postponing future hires. But it’s just as likely that it won’t, or that it will even spur further hires. There are byzantine internal politics related to decisions about which departments to focus on.

It is annoying to have people with zero knowledge of how positions are funded, searched for, and how universities operate to be imposing their judgements on things they know little about.


Doug 05.09.12 at 6:39 am

132: “Obviously, this is more possible for some careers than others; there is little need for a criminal prosecutor in a foreign embassy.”

Oddly enough, I know of two US prosecutors, a married couple, working in an embassy. They are with the Department of Justice, helping the host country with judicial reform. They would not have come if both had not been offered positions.

The US Foreign Service has spousal accommodation all the time, as a matter of routine and (I think) as a matter of policy. Many embassy jobs that are posted will have a “family preference” noted in the listing, saying that family of current employees are preferred. The alternative is a diplomatic corps comprised of single people.

Multilateral organizations vary widely in their degree of support. The OSCE was recently looking for a chief deputy in Bishkek (I think the posting asked for 15 years of increasingly responsible experience, so it was hardly a low-level position). Their family support was no moving allowance, no flight costs for family, no reimbursement of school costs. That there would be no spousal accommodation of any sort went without saying at that point.


Tim Worstall 05.09.12 at 2:35 pm

“My knowledge of internal church politics only extends to the RC variety, so any rumours I’ve heard of such things are rather quiet.”

Certain rural parishes used to place “housekeepers”.


Sebastian H 05.09.12 at 6:24 pm

Marc, it is hard to square this idea of such abundance of departmental resources and central administrations easily passing out the large amount of money a new hire represents with all the discussions we’ve seen around here of declining departmental resources, administrative tightfistedness and the plight of masses of PhDs applying for every conceivable position.

The stories don’t add up well, so appealing to authority on “It is annoying to have people with zero knowledge of how positions are funded” just doesn’t wash with me.

Again, it may well be that spousal hires are fine in some cases. The best case scenario would be that the two people hired, taken together, represent as well or better than the university was likely to do with two people hired separately. It may very well be that *on balance* the good outweighs the problems

But all this talk of positions that don’t take any opportunities away from anyone else because they spring from the head of Zeus, don’t need to be open to competition, and somehow don’t cost anything sounds like self-deception.


bianca steele 05.09.12 at 6:41 pm

Universities are plainly different from almost every other employer, so why shouldn’t they be different in this regard, too? Hiring markets where there’s a real market are rare: union jobs, college hires, and civil servants are the only other ones that come to my mind. I’ve worked places where large numbers of employees were hired through connections that resulted in patterns that would almost certainly have been illegal if they’d been intentional, but which were really no different morally from “hiring people from the companies you’ve worked at before or where people you know well have worked at before.” We’re not talking about renting an apartment for the CEO’s mistress who is also an employee (the furnishings of which will have to be auctioned off when the CEO crashes and burns). We’re not talking about hiring the CEO’s wife as the VP of an important division–which doesn’t seem that bad if we’re talking about what’s initially a small company, actually.

(Disclaimer: I once had a job that resulted indirectly from my husband’s working there, but directly from my talking to people I also already knew at the company’s holiday party who suggested it.)


Marc 05.10.12 at 2:16 am

@149: It costs the university more than a single hire, so it’s done primarily to attract people who are regarded as exceptionally good. It’s also the case that these people tend to be in the stronger departments in the university. This leads to an interesting dynamic, quite different from the implied “spouse got a job that they couldn’t compete for”: namely, that the spousal hire is frequently *substantially* better than the university could have gotten in an open search. The reason why this is very common is that, for most universities, individual departments vary a lot in quality. It’s probably not a coincidence that the successful models tend to be in universities with precisely this profile: people hired into departments that are unusually strong for that university (and thus ones where the university is willing to invest more), and spouses hired into average departments at the same place (who strengthen the department and are glad to be there.)

There is a case where spousal hires are more of a problem: if they work in the same department. This can create bad dynamics in governance, promotion, and hiring, as couples almost always vote together. Especially for small departments, this also is likely to impact the balance of subjects studied.


Dave W. 05.12.12 at 1:34 am

I find the belief in a Platonic ideal of jobs that are always offered to the single mathematically “best” candidate to be rather touchingly naive about the way hiring works in the real world, even within other parts of a university. Years ago, when I was a grad student, I briefly dated a woman who worked in administrative support in the department. Theoretically, all such positions, including reclassifications for promotion purposes (e.g., reclassifying a position from Administrative Assistant 2 to Administrative Assistant 3) were filled by a competitive search. In practice, when a department was reclassifying a position to give someone a promotion, that person was going to get the job, no matter who else they interviewed. The first question you learned to ask about any job opening that you were thinking of applying for was whether there was an internal candidate for the position. If so, you might go ahead with the interview to polish your interviewing skills, or to increase your visibility for future positions, but you knew you weren’t going to get that particular job. Around half the posted job openings had internal candidates.

That’s not that unusual for bureaucracies of various sorts, including the civil service. There’s the way the hiring process operates on paper, and the way it works in reality. Expecting an idealized process to be followed just because they are hiring faculty instead of AAs seems misplaced.

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