Through college, grad school, and being a professor in small, out-of-the-way places, I’ve seen several permutations on partner hiring or the lack thereof—people commuting, people leaving, people staying, partners getting hired, partner hires getting divorced, etc. I’m single, and I don’t ever expect to benefit from a spousal hire, and I’m not 100% happy with how I’ve seen them done in my department. I actually think dual academic couples are unhealthy, or would certainly be unhealthy for me. The contexts I’ve been in, however, spousal hires have been extended to same-sex couples and domestic partners, which of course I also agree with, so I will use partner hire from here on out.
I believe in partner hires. The university is not and never has been a meritocracy—it has always been an instrument of social engineering. A university is a socially constructed community, and the leaders of the university ought to have quite a lot of leeway to execute that construction as they see fit. Thus, I also believe in affirmative action, legacy admits, athletic admits, artistic admits, and so forth. And by “the university”, I mean all colleges, large and small.
Naturally, you need balance. None of these things should be extended to people who are not qualified to do the job, and too much of it can result in instability or weakness of the community.
On partner hiring, in particular: a couple that is invested in a university and a city for the long-term is an asset. Institutional memory and stability benefits the university, particularly in an age of increased mobility in most professions.
Furthermore, the professorial system was designed for men with wives who would follow them, raising the children and editing the manuscripts. There is no way to fix this other than to rip down the entire system and start over, which is never going to happen. Partner hires should be an accepted, recognized partial mitigation for the brokenness of the overall system.
I’d like to see partner hires more formalized, and universities articulate the same sort of justification for them as I’ve done here. Offer couples the opportunity to share one job or 1.5 jobs, for instance. Internal set-aside funds for partner lines or five-year contracts. Generosity with courtesy appointments and unpaid office space should be a given, but there should also be centralized support for academic entrepreneurship under the umbrella of the university (I’m thinking here of a wife I know who has spent thirty years doing various grants and projects in lieu of a tenure-track partner hire). Develop regional consortiums in DC, NYC, Boston, etc for schools to work together to exchange partner hires.
With more acceptance of partner hires, I think there would be more space to pre-empt the flaws in partner hiring. Regional exchanges would reduce the incidence of couples in the same department in the first place. The discussions around partner hires could specifically warn against the 1-person-for-the-price-of-2 behavior. If partner hires are built into a central system, it should reduce the jealousy among departments and the networking that means that certain favorites get partner hires but others don’t.
Indirect response to Bardiac, Profgrrl, K8, Dr Crazy, and maybe some others I’m missing. (Bardiac did not link them—should I not? I think my readership is low enough—and if you follow my link to another blog, please say nothing if you can’t be polite.)