The Presidential Spouse

When defining roles and duties, a good guide may be the adages about courtesy and common sense that we learned from our grandparents, writes Michael W. Schultz.

May 5, 2010

Fund-raising is an integral and time-consuming part of every president’s job. While the president works closely with the development office in garnering private support, another person often plays a significant role in the success of a university’s development efforts. “Hired” along with the CEO, the individual serves a major function, but frequently has no job description and often works without a contract or remuneration. This is the spouse of the president.

"Elucidating the Role of the University CEO’s Spouse in Development, Alumni Relations and Fund Raising" was the title of my doctoral dissertation, successfully defended in 2009. The study — a qualitative analysis that included interviews with development officers, trustees, and presidential spouses — focused on female spouses at public institutions, but its implications can be applied to a broader audience.

This research supported the proposition that the first spouse can, and usually does, have a positive influence on the institution. In addition, I learned that the respondents share similar opinions on many issues. All want the president, the president's partner, chief development officer, and the institution to succeed, particularly in development, and agree that the time the partner invests in the university is dedicated primarily to development, fund-raising, and alumni relations. Surprisingly though, there is little direct communication about the role of the first spouse. Nearly all of the participants noted that "the time we have spent in this interview is the most I have dedicated to thinking about this topic." This article, then, is offered as a tool to promote dialogue on the topic.

Reviewing hundreds of pages of interview transcripts for this study made me feel like a miner chiseling away at dense material. I also felt like a minor celebrity when Inside Higher Ed contacted me about my as yet unfinished dissertation for a breaking news article about a controversy involving a presidential spouse, a feeling enhanced by e-mail inquiries I received after the article appeared. I anticipated the epiphany that my dissertation would offer the world of higher education. I had, instead, a blinding flash of the obvious. What I offer are some bits of advice about life in general — most gleaned from my grandparents (and which I grew up thinking they had penned themselves) — and my interpretation of how these adages apply to this topic.

To thine own self be true. Spouses must know themselves and their comfort zones. Development officers and trustees must be aware of their institution’s "personality." All must play to their strengths. No one set of characteristics makes a successful first spouse; however, all interviewees agreed that political savvy is helpful. The extended university community will hang on the spouse’s words and actions, often assuming that the individual speaks for the president. Living in a fishbowl, spouses must be careful of what they say and do. The job may be somewhat easier, though, if the role is tailored to the individual’s strengths and experience. Most of my study respondents served universities with Division I football or basketball teams that were big rallying opportunities for alumni, donors, and the larger community. Not all spouses enjoyed the big game; however, all thought putting in an appearance was good and a few found creative ways to do that. Often it involved attending a pre-game reception, but then not going to the game. In a few cases, the spouse reported she was a bigger sports fan than her husband and thus was a fixture at home games.

Do unto others as you would have them do to you. First partners are busy people, with personal lives and often their own careers; they do not have unlimited time and are often not even university employees. Development staff, trustees, and alumni should treat spouses as they themselves would want to be treated. Crossing three time zones and then scheduling consecutive late nights, early mornings and full days is tough on everyone. If staff feel like they need time to put up their feet, the first couple certainly also will. Along the same lines, development staff work very hard on behalf of the first couple and appreciate positive reinforcement as well. Professional staff often put a good deal of thought into who attends a presidential event and are orchestrating connections. Well-run events may seem effortless to the first couple, but the time staff invest in making these functions run smoothly is substantial and the president and spouse need to be cognizant of that before offering to host several of these in one week.

When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me. Development officers, trustees, and the university community should not assume that the spouse is aware of campus events, traditions, or the foibles of other first partners. Communication is critical. Dialogue with the first partner needs to start early (as early as the interview stage) and continue through the tenure of the president. When a search committee learns that a presidential finalist has a spouse, the committee should open discussions with that partner. The development office should also be part of the process since this is the area on which the spouse will spend the majority of time. It would be wise for the development office to propose an internal point of contact for the spouse and a regular schedule of meetings to give a sense of the support available. To provide valuable background information, the astute development officer will also share with the partner-elect the previous spouses’ involvement as well as any issues that influenced public opinion (e.g., overspending on house renovations). As the hiring and supervisory authority, the board of trustees should also be involved in early communication.

All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer. We all bring experiences to our jobs, but need to be careful about regarding our opinions as truth. Spouses, development officers, and trustees should be open to each other's ideas and experiences. Trustees should consider appointing a member as liaison to the spouse, providing a conduit for the parties to maintain constant and open communication. And they shouldn’t expect the president to be the conduit – the president has plenty of other things on which to communicate with the board. Boards might also ask the partner to provide an annual report of his or her university-related work, which would acknowledge the efforts of the spouse and help the board understand the partner’s value to the institution.

A good reputation is hard to earn but easy to lose. In today’s world of constant news and instant communication, it is easy for an ill-chosen word or misunderstanding to spark a firestorm of criticism. The full resources of the communications office should be deployed to defend the first partner if there is a misstep. And more important, the communications office should make sure the spouse is briefed on hot-button issues. Not telling a presidential partner that her predecessor was lambasted in the local paper for hosting lavish events during a time of budget reductions could be disastrous as the first community open house is planned.

Say thank you. Trustees and staff need to thank the first partner in a manner meaningful to the spouse and justifiable by the trustees. Every spouse I interviewed desired acknowledgment for her work. None of them wanted a traditional salary, but thought it could be an option for others. Among the suggestions for meaningful acknowledgment were honorariums, health insurance, retirement plans, discretionary funds, office space, or staff support. Spouses, too, need to thank university staff for their work.

Although not inflexible "rules," this advice reflects several facts: communication, understanding of trustees’ and CDOs’ positions and goals, and tailoring expectations to the spouse’s strengths and the institution’s needs are crucial for all parties to be successful, productive, and efficient in their development roles. The results offer recommendations to university leaders, their partners, development staff, and trustees to consider in maintaining productive and mutually satisfying professional relationships based on the unique qualities of each institution, community, and individual.


Michael W. Schultz is associate vice president for development and alumni relations at the University of Vermont and earned his doctoral degree in educational leadership and policy from the same institution. He has worked in higher education development for more than 20 years.


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