Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Spousal Hires, and a Nod to Dr. Crazy

Dr. Crazy put up a really smart and insightful post about the spousal hiring thing. You should read it here.

I think I'm more against spousal hires than Dr. Crazy is, but she makes good sense here.

I keep reading in a variety of comments that spousal hires are necessary because married individuals have individually difficult lives.

I think such an approach misrecognizes the reasons we do affirmative action hiring. We do special hires and affirmative action because we're trying to 1) provide equitable opportunities to people who are members of groups that have been systemically discriminated against. and we're trying to 2) redress systemic discriminatory practices.

Married people have not been subject to systemic discrimination because they're married. So there's no need for redress.

In fact, married people are the majority of adult Americans. They have the most power politically and economically.

Some of the objections have to do with difficult decisions people have to make. For example, one person might say that without getting special treatment through a spousal hire, that person might have to leave the profession.

To that, I want to say that about one third of people in my field (English) who finish PhDs have not gotten tt jobs in the field for a number of years. Why should people receive preferential treatment because they are married? The one third of PhDs who aren't getting jobs includes a variety of people. Can I say to any one of them who doesn't qualify for spousal hiring that people married to other academics deserve special treatment that others (single folks, people married to non-academics) don't deserve?

It's important to recognize that the single person who doesn't get a job because it's given to someone as a spousal hire is just as much out of work and just as likely to need to leave the field as a married (to another academic) person who doesn't get a job.

What's ethically necessary is that on our search committees, we make the best hiring decisions possible for our college or university community. And we have to recognize that "best" does not necessarily mean white or male or upper-class or ivy educated. Or married.

What's also ethically necessary is that we recognize that we academics are part of a systemic problem in a field that produces too many PhDs for the employment opportunites, and that the opportunity costs of accepting people to grad school adversely affects those individuals who (though wonderful and qualified) will never get jobs in the field because those jobs aren't there. We're also part of a systemic problem in schools that exploit adjunct labor because it's cheaper.

From my little office, I don't know what I can do to change the overenrollment of PhD students (and the exploitation of PhD students as cheap labor) at R1s. I know that I didn't have a clue about the problem when I entered grad school, and so don't think that's the responsibility of students entering programs. But how do I begin to get my state flagship to cut its PhD programs when they benefit from the cheap labor?

From my little office, I also don't know what I can do to change the use of adjuncts to teach a large number of courses. It's easy to say "take a pay cut, Bardiac, and your university will be able to hire another tt person with half of your pay." But in reality, I make about $45K a year,* so I wouldn't stay here at half my salary, nor would most PhDs be willing to move here to do my job for half my salary. (It's important to recognize that the $45K is what my paycheck says. My school also provides benefits, including nearly $8k in health and other insurance, plus social security and retirement. Our adjuncts have health and other benefits if they have 50% employment, and my department makes an effort to provide that level of employment to our adjuncts so that they have benefits.)

Maybe it's also easy to say "you should teach another composition class, Bardiac," but again, I don't think many PhDs would be willing to move here to teach 16 credit hours a semester for my paycheck (with the other research and service expectations).

My question is, what do we do to address the systemic problems in equitable and just ways?

*Yes, I recognize that I'm privileged to make $45K a year and that there are a whole lot of people in the world who would be in heaven with that paycheck.


  1. Overall, I tend to agree with you.

    I think spousal hiring began when the academic job market was much better -- and when most jobs were more or less handed out to grad students of cronies... Under that standard, creating another job wasn't hard.

    The problem is that now -- we have many more Ph.D.s than jobs and spousal hires get to bypass the regular hiring process without a good reason to do so.

    If I recall correctly, another favorite blogger of mine started this conversation because her husband got a spousal hire tt job -- a position that was created for him and that wouldn't have otherwise existed if the question about spousal hiring hadn't been asked. Assuming his line will be filled next year, his move actually creates a new job. The problem is that this isn't usually the case. I also have to wonder how often women have jobs created for them?

  2. You make a really good point about the absence of discrimination against married people. I like your point about the attrition rate overall in English. When looked at from that perspective, it's a luxury to be able to choose to "leave the profession" with the backup of another income. That's an option that unmarried people don't have, unless they have an inheritance or something.

    I'm not against spousal hires, but I acknowledge the wisdom of your objections and of Dr. Crazy's analysis about the heteronormativity embedded in spousal hiring practices.

  3. Considering the investment of time and energy in your education,$45K/year is not that much. If your Ph.D. were in a non-humanities discipline, you could probably double that. I expect you're also affected by the famed and dreaded salary compression.

  4. I think it's a mistake to conflate spousal hiring with affirmative action, as if spousal hiring were a matter of affirmative action for married (or partnered) people. Really, when it comes down to it, spousal hiring is a matter of retention, at least in my experience in the world of what used to be called R1 universities.

    Administrators are not thinking that they'll take a (potential) job away from a (hypothetical) single person and give it to a partnered person. What they are thinking is usually some variant of the following: "We have someone in whom we have invested a lot, and in whom the investment seems to be paying off. They're considering moving somewhere else, because they're trying to be in the same place as their partner. If we can scrape together the money for a position for the partner, and the appropriate department/unit considers the partner sufficiently qualified, by offering them a job we can retain this person we really want to keep."

    In that sense it's more analogous to targeted hires.

    For full disclosure: my wife and I are beneficiaries of a spousal hire. Without going into the boring details, I can say with confidence that it was because (a) my department and dean thought highly of me, (b) they knew that I had been on the job market every year since my wife got her t-t job, and (c) my wife's credentials were at least as impressive as my own and certainly well within the expectations for our department's junior or mid-career hires. We're in the same discipline, so the administration did not have to deal with another unit. She went through a full interview process: gave a job talk, met with students, faculty, and the dean, and was voted on by the dept. personnel committee. But it was not a competitive search; rather, it was an up-or-down vote (I agree wholeheartedly that sham searches are wrong because of the time and money that applicants in good faith put into them).

    I would have been willing to go through the same process at her institution, and I would even have considered giving up tenure to move there, but they were not as interested in keeping her as my institution was in keeping me.

    Did the creation of a position for her mean one fewer open search? It's hard to say. The previous person in her field had retired some years beforehand and had not been replaced, and our numbers were dwindling. Maybe the administration would have provided a line for an open search, but that's hard to say. One could also say that people who work into their 70s instead of retiring are taking jobs away from new Ph.D.s--though again, at my institution there's no guarantee that someone who retires will be replaced. I do know that my wife's previous institution hired someone else to replace her the following year.

    Again, this is based on my experience and the experiences of some other people I know or have heard of, mostly at R1 universities. I don't claim that it applies to all spousal or partner hires everywhere. It does seem as if many places handle them badly. Sorry to take up so much commenting space, but since I comment under my own name I feel an obligation to be as clear as possible.