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Dual Career Cautionary Tale

July 30, 2012

"Don't worry. We'll work it out."

Many an academic couple has heard this line when one partner has been offered a job and arrangements haven't been quite worked out for the position of the other. A ruling by the Rhode Island Supreme Court this month may illustrate how important it is to get specific about what is being offered to the accompanying spouse. The ruling backed a woman who sued Brown University when the terms of her employment were changed after she and her husband accepted positions there.

In this case, the couple in fact had detailed discussions with Brown officials before accepting the positions. And those discussions are what protected them in the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruling. But experts said that the case shows just how vulnerable academic couples can be to having one of the positions change.

"This case says make sure you get tenure [for the partner] before you say yes," said Lisa Wolf-Wendel, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Kansas, who has written extensively about family-friendly policies in academe.

The Supreme Court ruling begins by noting just how important these issues are to many colleges and universities: "Aristotle once said that love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies, and herein lies a significant problem for recruitment and contractual relations in the venerable halls of academia."

The Recruitment Process

As described in the ruling, Brown recruited Paul Armstrong to become dean of the college in 2000. At the time, he was a dean at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Beverly Haviland, his wife, was a tenured professor of comparative studies at Stony Brook, and had previously earned tenure at Vassar College. Armstrong asked for a tenured position for his wife, and Brown said that wasn't possible. Armstrong turned down the job, but Brown continued to pursue him, with the provost and interim president at the time telling him, "Let's see whether we can work something out."

What Brown came up with for Haviland was a position as "visiting associate professor/senior lecturer in the Department of Comparative Literature and American Civilization." And with regard to reappointment, Brown promised -- multiple times in writing -- that Haviland would be reviewed in the same way that non-renewal of a tenured faculty member's contract would be considered. In other words, she wouldn't have tenure, but she couldn't be dismissed without meeting the criteria for dismissing tenured faculty members -- giving her job security that would be in many ways indistinguishable from tenure.

But after Armstrong and Haviland accepted the offers, resigned from their Stony Brook positions and put their house on the market, a new letter arrived from Brown, stating that Haviland would be evaluated for renewal as are other non-tenured faculty members. Armstrong and Haviland complained and were told not to worry. Then, when she came up for renewal (and since), she has been evaluated by the standard of "sustained excellence in teaching," which is not the standard she was initially promised, and is a higher bar for her and a much lower bar for non-renewal.

Haviland appealed these decisions internally at Brown, and when her appeals were rejected, she sued. Brown has pushed since the suit was filed in 2005 to have it dismissed, and the university lost at both the district court and Supreme Court levels. Brown argued that Haviland hadn't suffered any harm when the standard for review was changed, and the university made several arguments for why the pledges made to Haviland were not a contract.

The Supreme Court said that just because Haviland didn't lose her job doesn't mean she doesn't have a right to sue. "[P]laintiff's continued uncertainty as to which standard Brown will employ for her reviews is a concrete and particularized interest," the decision says.

On the matter of the contract, Brown argued that because only the university's board can authorize tenure, Haviland should have known that the communications promising a tenure-like position were not necessarily final. But the Supreme Court noted that Haviland and Armstrong had negotiated with high-ranking officials -- a dean, the provost and the interim president. Statements from those people were "reliable indicia of authority" such that Armstrong and Haviland were reasonable to rely on them.

The Supreme Court's decision means that Haviland -- who, along with Armstrong, remains teaching at Brown -- will be evaluated as Brown initially proposed.

A Brown spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on the ruling.

Advice for Dual Career Couples

Thomas M. Dickinson, a lawyer who represented Haviland, said that his client was happy with the result. He said that his advice for other couples would be to do what Haviland and Armstrong did.

"I think you want to make sure that whatever working out you are going to do, you work it out before you change locations or sign up for the new employment, and frankly I think that's what Professor Haviland did here."

Wolf-Wendel said that the case points to a number of issues. One is that she has heard that in dual-career couples where one partner is an administrator, many have found colleges reluctant to award tenure. "There is the implied expectation that the [administrator] might not be around for a long time," so institutions are reluctant to offer tenure to the spouse.

More generally, with dual-career academics, many talk about being told to trust institutions. Wolf-Wendel says not to do that. If you want tenure for an accompanying spouse, "you need to be sure to get it before you say yes" to either job. "The bargaining chip goes away once one person accepts. The minute they agree to come, the person [who was recruited first] no longer has the power. The institution has the power."

 

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