Being an Effective Administrative Spouse

Mary M. Kennedy offers her experiences as wife and teacher as a case study in partnerships for higher education leaders.


March 31, 2010

In the search for a new college or university president or vice president, the spotlight is appropriately on the candidate. However, behind the scenes is another very important person: the spouse or partner of the candidate. Institutions should, and usually do, cast their spotlight on the partner, too, and all parties should be ready for that review.

As a veteran spouse to a man in higher education leadership positions, I am well aware of a spouse’s expectations and responsibilities. It has been difficult for me sometimes, because I am also an academic professional and have taught for 50 years at nearly all levels of education -- high school, community college, universities (undergraduate and graduate), and as a training director in business and industry. Ironically, I have a doctorate in higher education administration, but have elected to concentrate elsewhere in my career. Instead, I have served as a supportive collaborator for my partner’s administrative career while I continued my own teaching career.

Each partnership entering higher education leadership positions will be unique based on the education, work experience, and personality of each partner. However, in my opinion, the most important element is the working relationship the two partners have to help them cope with the roles of academic leadership.

This essay represents a short case study based on the partnership between my husband and me. Significant background factors for this mini-case study are listed below.

1. My husband has been a university college dean at six different universities, and is currently an executive vice president and chief academic officer. He is interested in advancing to a university president position.

2. As a supportive spouse, I have elected to follow my husband during his career. This has meant that my career goals have had to be compromised over the years; however, I have willingly agreed to this arrangement for the basic reason that my husband’s earning power in higher education was higher than mine, which gave us more financial security. In addition, after personally trying a dean of business position for two years, I decided I preferred teaching to administration.

Positive factors in our dual career partnership:

1. The greatest asset we have as partners is that we both earned graduate degrees in the same academic area -- organizational communication/labor relations. Later, I earned my doctorate at the University of Michigan in higher education administration. With that degree, I have become even more valuable as a partner to a higher education leader.

2. Another asset is that we both have had business/industry experience outside the realm of academia. With our experiences in management development and training, we bring a pragmatism to the academic culture that can provide a very helpful, expanding view. For example, my husband worked full time for Detroit Edison for several years as a management development specialist, and also consulted with several companies including Ford Motor Co. and Motorola. I worked full-time as a training director at several companies including Blue Cross (Detroit).

3. In general, we are fortunate to have been partners in life with shared and blended education, work experiences, and interests. Each of us has had his/her own goals and personality, but was always supportive of the other. Above all we have used healthy humor to lighten our work along the way and to supplement our professional life with fun interests in artistic endeavors.

4. We have been very fortunate to have an uncomplicated family life, including one child who survived several family moves and our caregiving for aging parents.

5. From my perspective as a female spouse, a major asset to our partnership has been my ability to have my own teaching career, although I have chosen to never work at the university where my husband was in the administration. Such a situation would have posed too many potential conflicts of interest. However, if my partner were offered a presidential position, the situation might be different, if the university’s culture were one that expected the spouse to have a salaried position at that institution.

There have been situations where I could not find full-time work in teaching, and I have supplemented part-time teaching with a variety of jobs for which I was overqualified and underemployed, e.g., clerk at Dillard’s Department Store, internship at an art frame shop, secretary for B.F. Goodrich, and typist for American Greeting cards. All of this was done to support our son’s college education. I have no regrets. The point is that as a supportive spouse, one needs to be flexible and not hampered by an overactive ego.

6. In general, I believe such an arrangement is healthier when the partner has his/her own career and professional work that provides the partner with a firm self-identity. For example, currently, I have elected not to teach. When asked, I explain that I’m taking an extended sabbatical to complete academic writing (I have published four articles in the past four years) and that I’m continuing my research for another historical fiction novel. (I completed one novel in 2006 that is still unpublished.) The point here is that spouses, after they stop working in their careers, can easily become isolated from their spouse’s academic culture. This can cause a “growing apart” syndrome that is not healthy for the maintenance of a successful marital partnership.

7. Above all, the partner must be supportive of the academic leader’s responsibilities in social situations. This involves the many facets of social and emotional intelligence and having the skills to implement that mental ability. Fortunately, my years in teaching public speaking and interpersonal communication have provided me with a comfortable degree of skill in those areas.

My only weakness is that I sometimes have trouble controlling my nonverbal communication in facial and body actions. An example where I have to refrain from my tendency to be politely candid in communication is when I am asked, “Are you retired?”

This question irritates me. First, it implies that I look old enough to be retired. Second, although I am not currently teaching at a college, it does not mean I am not working at something significantly academic or engaging in professional activity. I’m sure my voice inflections and body language are speaking louder than my words in those situations. I continue to work on that.

Negative factors in our dual career partnership:

There really have not been major negatives in our choices within academic careers.

However, the major one for me, as the supportive spouse, is that each time my husband has moved forward in his administrative career, I have had to find another teaching position or other work.

This has been a challenge, but it has had some positive results. I have a track record for flexibility and innovation in finding jobs in which I have developed first-time positions and have gained experience in different fields. For example, I have been an education director at a major hospital, a training director at a large printing company, and a coordinator of a consortium of community colleges.

In all of these newly-formed job positions, I was able to define the job and progress it to the next level of accomplishment. Experiences like these certainly help to keep a sense of self-worth for the spouse who is following and supporting an administrative leader.

Recommendations for higher education leader’s spouse/partner:

My only recommendations are these:

1. Be sure that your basic relationship is one of supporting each other in your careers and/or interests.

2. The supporting spouse should have or quickly develop a sense of self-worth in his/her own field of interest or career so that a feeling of independence can be maintained.

3. If there are children or extended families involved, the supportive spouse must be willing to take on the burden of those responsibilities, because the academic leader will not have the time to devote to those duties.

4. Above all, be skilled in social and emotional intelligence so that you can properly support your spouse in those situations in which diplomacy is very important.


Mary M. Kennedy is an educational researcher and administrator's wife.


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