heartbreak · hiring · turgid institution

Guest Post: Spousal Hiring

In May 2010 I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about spousal hiring. The former dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Johns Hopkins University made a convincing case about the need for administrators (not just faculty members and their unions) to care about spousal hiring. He writes:

My experience in the dean’s office confirmed my impressions as to the need for spousal hiring. Johns Hopkins simply could not have built its faculty without a willingness to create positions for spouses and partners.

In case after case, that willingness was, by far, the single most important factor in recruitment. We could increase a salary offer by tens of thousands of dollars a year; provide lavish research accounts; promise a scandalous number of sabbatical leaves—none of it mattered if it meant that a candidate still faced the prospect of a long-distance commute or a major professional sacrifice by a spouse.

Now to be clear here, this issue matters much to me, and likely rang true in many ways because I am one half of a dual-academic couple. In 2007 my husband began a tenure-track job in one city, and in 2009 I began one in another city. I even gave up the second year of a SSHRC postdoc for this job since everyone and their dog told me that I’d be stupid to pass it up. Again and again other academics – those in contract positions, those in administration, and fellow professors of every rank – told us just how lucky we were to land two tenure-track jobs within a 5 hour drive of each other. Heck, they said as they toasted us, at least you’re in the same time zone!

Ours is an academic “success story,” but I’d like to take a moment to articulate my experience of this so-called “success.” I won’t offer a list of things that don’t really work with a long-distance, dual-academic partnership in my experience, because I fear that it will just read as a long whinge, a litany of complaints. (“Is the husband a problem?,” is how the New York Times put it.)

What I do want to communicate, however, is the very real sense of helplessness and lack of agency that both myself and my partner have experienced with respect to academia as we have tried to remedy our long-distance situation. We are crushed by a monolithic and slow bureaucratic structure. Our hands are tied, as are those of our respective Chairs and Deans (for the most part). I thought universities would be places where smart people could come together to find creative solutions to any kind of problem, but I’m learning just how wrong I was in that notion. By and large, the advice that we get is: “just wait it out and eventually you’ll end up in the same place.”

Now while that advice may be true, there is no guarantee that it is true. We could just live out our professional lives split between two Ontario cities. But perhaps more importantly, when well-meaning friends and colleagues tell us that it will all “work out eventually,” what they neglect to realize is the price to be paid for that “eventual” timeline. Put simply: we can neither buy a house nor have children until we’re in the same place. And if “eventually” doesn’t happen soon enough, then the window on having kids will close, whether we like it or not. That, I have to admit, is a high price to pay for what is, at the end of the day, just a job.

Here’s where things stand for us right now: This year I was awarded a research grant and was able to convince my university to give me a one-year unpaid research leave (July 2010-July 2011). So I’m back in the same city as my spouse, working from home. What do I think will ultimately happen? I’m a realist. So what I think will happen is that I will end up leaving academia, and I will try to find work doing something else, and I will be one more female statistic who compromises her own academic and professional goals. So if I were a betting woman, I’d bet that my days in academia are numbered. And that makes me very sad. In fact, it breaks my heart just a little bit. But at the end of the day, I would rather have my marriage than my job. And I just wish that academia didn’t ask me to make that choice.

Lindy Ledohowski, Ph.D.

11 thoughts on “Guest Post: Spousal Hiring

  1. Lindy thank you so much for writing this post. It is moving, frank, and heart wrenching.

    You point to something that I have felt for a while now: the congratulations and felicitations which–well meaning, I'm sure–surround landing a job are often uncritical. Getting a job at what cost? Happiness? Well-being? Unpaid research leaves?

    Again, thank you for writing for us on such an important issue.


  2. Lindy,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and views on this complex Spousal/Partner Hiring issue. It affects, I think, an increasing number of academics (..including myself). I completely agree with your point that we'd expect universities to be “coming up with creative solutions”. Evidently there cannot be a straight-jacket one-size-fit-all solution for each case. After all university administration has all the superior information about budgets, forecasts, inter-departmental alliances, inter-disciplinary positions, cross-appointments, to name a few. And bureaucratic delays in making hiring that IS feasible should be the first thing to eliminate, as part of any creative solution.

    I wish you success in your ongoing efforts to be the desired time zone and city!


  3. Yep, we've seen it before and I hate to see it happening again — and to you. Glad that you're writing about it though, Lindy, so that you're not, indeed, just “one more female statistic”!


  4. Let me begin by saying that, as a Chair (of more than one department), I've been involved in negotiating more than one spousal appointment. I do understand that spousal appointments are often deal-makers/breakers for the kinds of appiontments that Chairs and Deans want to make. And I do empathize with the heartbreak involved in long-distance relationships and the other kinds of compromises that academic couples have to make. But I also worry about the effect of spousal hirings on other new PhDs in the job market, including the many who are single or partnered with non-academics. Some of them must surely wonder about the fairness of spousal hiring, especially when the market is as tight as it is now. Universities that can't find the money for open competitions suddenly come up with the money for a spousal. This is especially the case when a university wants to retain a “star” or recruit a “star.” In the case of my own university, our four highly controversial CERCs (all men) came with spousals and other appointments. I guess what I'm saying is that unqualified support for spousal hiring is not necessarily a feminist position.


  5. Thanks for the comments so far, everyone. I must say it's nerve-wracking to put my heart out on my sleeve for all to see, but isn't honesty part of academic freedom??

    Thank you as well, Jo-Ann, for pointing out a necessary nuance (that the Chronicle article also highlights), that spousal hiring is not a fix-all solution, nor is it even the best, especially as it generally only applies in the case of “stars” (those who are often, by the way, at the stages of their careers when they could financially/personally survive long-distance).

    I guess I've just been saddened by watching my non-academic friends being able to negotiate higher salaries/travel allowances/housing allowances etc. when their jobs take them to locations that aren't ideal, but North American universities seem unable to come up with workable solutions in my experience. And I often feel like I'm a lesser academic for admitting out loud (or in writing, as the case may be) that I want to prioritize my relationship (which is the point made in the Times article).

    Anyway, that's my two cents' worth for the moment, and thank you to everyone for taking the time to read and comment. I do think that the very idea behind this blog is one that intrigues and excites me, and I'm happy to offer my thoughts (whatever they may be worth!!!).


  6. The part that bothers me the most about this, is that you feel guilty for wanting to prioritize your family over your job. Why is it if a man follows around his wife for her passions and career goals, he is deemed altruistic, and almost saintly for supporting his wife. Where as women are deemed as “lesser academics” or following traditional gender roles and setting back equality among the sexes when they choose to follow their spouse for the prospect of a happy family.

    Last time I checked women were sentient beings just as much as men were. I really dislike that when women choose to sacrifice their jobs for their husbands or partners, that they are somehow less than. Especially because at the end of the day you are not any less educated, less passionate, or any less anything. In truth you are more than you were before, because you are more happy. I thought that the opportunity to even make a choice like that was something that was included in being an equal. But why is it that we feel guilty for making that choice? Why can't we as humans just choose what will be best for us individually, and not have to feel societies awful glare when we choose to make very serious sacrifices in our own lives for the sake of a value that is deemed “traditional” yet important to us.

    I guess I have a hard time stomaching that a woman prioritizing her family first is less progressive then a woman prioritizing her career as number one. Is it less of a sacrifice to give up a job you like, then it is to give up a family if they both hold equal importance in your life? I kind of thought that both a good job, and a happy family were fleeting and hard to find.


  7. This is a great post, Lindy. Thank you for saying out loud what I'm guessing a lot of us feel: at the end of the day, my life is more important than my job. I don't want to have to choose between them, and I don't think any of us should have to, but I know what my choice would be. The same as yours.


  8. I think that the notion of having to choose or not between academia and family needs to be interrogated. I don’t see it as one of my choices because the two—family and work—are intimately intertwined. There’s no guarantee that family will thrive if the academy is sacrificed, and vice versa. In fact, I think the opposite is true. Family will suffer if family is “chosen.” Here’s why. If I give up my job for my family, then inevitably I will harbor resentment as I watch my husband excel in a career that I’ve given up: that will affect the relationship in various and negative ways. I will also give up an equal and comparable salary to my husband, leading to a changing power dynamic and different role-plays within the family. Moreover, I’d be serving as a different kind of role model for my children. And what pressure on the marriage—to make up for what I’d given up. In short, to give up my chosen career could be to succumb to a kind of family that I’ve neither wanted nor subscribed to—the kind in which the husband is the primary breadwinner and the wife has the primary responsibility for raising the children.

    My husband and I have both secured tenure-track positions at primarily undergraduate institutions with quite heavy teaching loads in cities 150 kms apart from one another. We have three children, a five year old and three year old twins. We have had to be creative in figuring out ways in which this can work. Daycare was to cost us upwards of $3000.00, so that wasn’t an option. We hired a live-in nanny, which works brilliantly for us. But because there is a cultural anxiety in Canada over letting others look after our children, and because there is also anxiety over welcoming another family member into the so-called nuclear family, many don’t choose this option. Of course, the fact that our nanny is herself a mother who has opted to live thousands of kilometers away from her own three children—with the hope of bringing them to Canada—is also fraught with issues and could be the subject of another article entirely. If anything, I feel criticized not for being a “lesser academic” but for working away from my children: for not being a “good mother.” People have also criticized my nanny for working away from her children, even though she has many valid reasons for doing so.

    My husband and I continue to work together to remain competitive and active in the job market, and we retain hope of eventually holding academic positions in the same city. In the meantime, I will give up neither career nor family. We need to stay present and active in both in order to make change.


  9. Laura, I'd love to hear more about what you think of your childcare arrangements, maybe in response to my post of today? You're absolutely right about the cultural pressures around caring for one's own children — as if you cease to care for them because you choose to work outside the home during the day!


  10. Thanks, Lindy, for writing about this difficult question. I want to add the issue isn't just one that applies to academic couples. Non-academic spouses aren't necessarily easier to relocate: they might own businesses that they don't wish to dismantle or can't rebuild in another town; their profession might rely so heavily on established networks or regional rules that they can't easily find work in another city or province. Non-academic spouses, too, tend to be well into their chosen careers by the time we get academic job offers. Therefore, I find that the intense discussions on spousal hiring only ever approach part of the problem.


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