10 June 2015

Spousal Hiring in Academia: Hiring in part on whom you're sleeping with

Stephen Kershnar
Spousal Hires in Academia: Sparse Resources Given to Bedfellows
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
June 8, 2015

There is an interesting issue as to whether universities should hire couples hire the partners of other faculty and do so without judging them better than other job candidates.   

In academia, only about a quarter of instructional faculty get plum tenure-track positions. Professors who are romantically partnered often want to find tenure-track jobs at the same university or, at least, within reasonable commuting distance. Without such positions, they have to choose between one person’s having to leave academia or a commuter marriage. This is hard on a marriage and not great for children.  

Stanford historian Londa Schiebinger et al. found this issue is central to many professors’ lives as more than a third of them have an academic partner (for example, a professor or research scientist). In some areas, the percentage is even higher. For example, 83% of women scientists are partnered with another scientist.

In response, universities increasingly hire couples. Schiebinger et al. found that while the proportion of academics who are coupled with another academic has remained constant, the hiring of couples has shot up over the last four decades, going from 3% in the 1970’s to 13% in the 2000s. One in every ten faculty is now brought in as part of a couple hire. Women in particular are focused on having their partner hired as the most common reason they give for turning down a job is the lack of a job for their partner. On a side note, SUNY-Fredonia and Buffalo have made spousal hires, the latter does so regularly.

Critics of spousal hiring argue that it brings problems. First, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Joseph Kay (an English professor writing under a pseudonym) notes that academic couples often vote as a bloc. This is a problem in that if a colleague offends one, he risks losing two votes on important issues like tenure and promotion. Second, Kay points out, there are problems with conflicts of interest. A spouse has to recuse herself in any matter specifically addressing her spouse. The concern is that information on a campus leaks like a sieve and that the ensconced spouse will too often hold a grudge or retaliate against those who voted against her spouse.  Third, Kay notes, there are landmines in spousal hiring. If a couple were to split up, an embittered former couple does not make for a happy department.

Fourth, Kay notes, affirmative action guidelines requiring people not be favored based on their personal life go out the window. As Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis points out, universities increasingly hire and give perks to people, based on whom they’re sleeping with. There is also the moral and legal issue of whether preference should be given to unmarried couples as well as married ones. There are federal and state laws against discriminating on the basis of marital status. These also go out the window. 

On the other hand, Stanford’s Schiebinger and Princeton history professor David Bell points out spousal hires are an important tool to recruit and retain the best faculty. This is likely the best argument for it, although it justifies hiring the spouses of star professors and not your standard issue professor.

Bell further argues that spousal hiring is a way to get faculty involved in the university as professors who have commuter marriages often avoid serving on committees, skip out of office hours, and regularly take unpaid leaves in order to spend more time with their spouse and children, all of which results in their having little presence on campus.

Both Schiebinger and Bell claim that spousal hiring adds to the quality of life of the professorate who get the jobs. This claim is odd in that the benefit to married professors comes at the expense of other professors not partnered up to a winner, so it is hard to see why this does anything other than make some professors’ lives go better at the expense of others. The extremely tight market for tenure-track spots makes this tradeoff unavoidable.

The real concern over spousal hiring is that it leads to professors being hired who would not have gotten the job were they not married to a winner. This is a problem given that faculty often spend 30 or more years at a university and a mediocre or worse hire results in decades of subpar teaching and inferior research. A university might judge this worthwhile if the primary spouse is a star, but often this is not the case.

I should note that Schiebinger et al. did not find a difference in productivity once one controlled for rank and gender. Bell reports a similar anecdotal finding. I find this to be implausible and in conflict with my observations, but, if correct, this merit-based objection fails. It is implausible because merit-based hiring processes tries to focus on best predictors of academic success and it is hard to see why, on average, people with less promise are as successful as those with more. By analogy, it is unsurprising that in the NFL, first round draft picks are, on average, better than those drafted later.  

In other areas that we care about (for example, Presidential cabinet and Fortune 500 executive boards), we would be wary of someone hired in part based on whom he married to. It is unclear why academia shouldn’t be wary for the same reason.  

There is also the issue of resource allocation. Departments or areas within a department are often given to spouses who research and teach in areas that are needed less than other areas. There is only a small chance that a secondary spouse is an expert in exactly the area or department a university most needs. Thus, each such hire is likely to result in a misallocation of university resources. This is a severe problem in those universities that do not have large faculties.   

In the end, spousal hiring should probably be used as tool to recruit and retain star faculty. It is a way to pay them more. Resource allocation and, perhaps, merit argue against it being a regular part of hiring. 

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