In 1977, Marguerite Walker Corbally published The Partners: Sharing the Life of a College President. Corbally’s evocative and candid account of her experiences deserves to be more widely read. It raised questions about the status and roles of presidential spouses in higher education that are perhaps more important today than they were 40 years ago. On American campuses, cultural norms and demographics have changed significantly -- the status and treatment of presidential spouses not so much.
Corbally served as presidential spouse at two quite different universities. First and foremost, she wanted her husband to succeed. Second, she wanted to be useful to her new communities. But having played no part in the presidential search process, she was quite unprepared for her new role and unsure about the expectations of her husband’s employers.
On the campuses and in the surrounding communities, the common and unspoken assumption was that she would do what previous presidential wives had done: serve as hostess at university events and as a volunteer (but not a leader) on community boards. She accepted the customary spousal role, with no salary, benefits or staff. She noted, however, that in many situations she might have been more at ease and more effective if her responsibilities, and the resources at her disposal, had been more clearly defined.
Aware that younger women with professional interests and aspirations of their own might view the customary spousal role as a straitjacket, she tried to discern the future: “It may be a long time,” she wrote, “but I predict that the role of the president’s wife will go the way of the dinosaurs.”
Was her prediction accurate? To answer this question, I reviewed the existing literature: reports of annual meetings of major higher education associations, books published by or with the imprimatur of the associations and personal memoirs published by small presses. I also learned much from a 2008 doctoral dissertation by Matthew R. Thompson, now president of Kansas Wesleyan University, and from a larger survey of presidential partners, conducted in 2016 by a University of Minnesota team under the leadership of presidential spouse Karen F. Kaler. After reviewing relevant publications and surveys, I interviewed two dozen presidential spouses from across the spectrum of four-year colleges and universities.
Survey data and memoirs are fascinating, but mostly they document the history of higher education’s “first ladies” more than they help readers understand how new trends in the larger society might or might not be driving traditional spousal roles (Corbally’s dinosaurs) to extinction.
Corbally’s prediction was accurate in the sense that, by the 1980s, some presidential wives voiced dissatisfaction with their assigned roles as social hostesses and rank-and-file members of campus committees or nonprofit community boards. Some looked for role definition, formal recognition and compensation. More radically for the times, a few asked for the freedom to pursue personal and career goals independently of their husbands’ employers.
To their credit, the associations to which college and university presidents paid dues heard those voices and created forums and support groups to discuss the issues. The National Association of State Universities and Land-grant Colleges, now the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, led the way with spousal activities at its annual meeting in 1981 and the publication in 1984 of Joan Clodius and Diane Skomars Magrath’s book, The President's Wife: Volunteer or Volunteered?
Corbally’s prediction was not accurate in the sense that the president’s wife, renamed “the president’s partner,” still plays an important role at hundreds of institutions. The name has changed in recognition of the rising number of male spouses and of same-sex couples. But the traditional role of the supportive helpmate, recast in significant ways to fit the times, is not facing extinction.
A More Demanding Role Than Ever
What has changed since the 1980s? According to experienced presidents and their partners, the social and public roles that go with leadership positions in higher education are more demanding than ever before. The challenges can be managed, they say, provided two conditions are met.
One, the partners must agree that they want to do this work, together and voluntarily. Two, the institution’s governing boards must recognize and support the presidential couple. Trustees cannot assume, as they did 20 or 30 years ago, that a presidential appointment gives them “two for the price of one.”
The traditional and still prevalent practice in presidential searches is to include the partner late in the process. Once the preferred candidate has been identified, the search committee typically invites them to visit the community, the campus and sometimes (not always) the presidential residence. This practice, which Marguerite Corbally questioned in the 1970s and spousal groups within the higher education associations challenged in the 1980s, has become untenable.
Raymond D. Cotton and other attorneys who specialize in presidential contracts have suggested that such issues be addressed by putting institutional expectations in writing and by offering the presidential partner an official title, an expense account, dedicated staff and possibly even a salary. These suggestions are intended to encourage talented people to pursue college and university presidencies. They also reflect, in some ways, a desire to change higher education practices that treated presidential spouses (mostly women) unfairly in the past. “Good intentions,” said one partner, “but the proposed new practices might actually become a backward step, restricting the ability of the presidential couple to shape its role over time.”
Couples who embrace traditional roles and who approach their work together and voluntarily report high levels of satisfaction. The terms of engagement vary from institution to institution and even from year to year. What must remain constant is the determination of the presidential couple to shape their respective roles in mutually supportive ways and of their own free will.
Couple-based leadership does not mean that the trustees hire two people who will share responsibility and authority within an institution. It means that a couple decide jointly and voluntarily to pursue a presidential opportunity. It also means that trustees who have identified a preferred candidate must be open to discussions and contractual negotiations that include the partner and that go well beyond perfunctory tours of the campus and community.
Presidential search committees and trustees should not assume that couple-based leadership will work in the same way at every institution. Presidential candidates and partners who have made joint and voluntary decisions to pursue an opportunity will bring to the table specific issues and expectations that must be addressed before offers of employment are made and accepted. A common issue, for instance, is how much time the presidential partner will be able and willing to devote to university projects and events. Another issue is the partner’s ability to accompany the president on university-related trips.
The proponents of couple-based leadership acknowledge that what works for some couples does not work for others. By definition, this arrangement does not apply to the small number of single lay candidates and to members of Roman Catholic religious orders.
Couple-based leadership is also difficult to reconcile with the rising number of presidential partners with careers of their own, especially so if they work outside academe. Partners of presidential candidates may be willing to relocate and seek new positions; they may also be willing to attend major college events and to travel occasionally with the president. Yet women and men with independent interests and careers point out the important distinction between being supportive partners and being one-half of a couple-based leadership team.
Given the enduring strength of the traditional model, albeit recast in the shape of service by couple-based teams, are today’s presidential aspirants -- children of the baby boomers with career-oriented partners -- in danger of losing out in competitive searches? The answer depends on many factors, especially the locations where these aspirants seek opportunities. In major urban areas, executive recruiters and trustees typically do not expect partners to become heavily engaged with the institutions that employs the other half of the couple. In rural and small-town settings, they typically do.
The children of the baby boomers, now poised to succeed a large cohort of retiring presidents, may turn out to be the bridge generation between the reality that Marguerite Corbally, Diane Skomars Magrath and other presidential wives described in the last quarter of the 20th century and emerging new roles.
For many, perhaps most colleges and universities, some form of couple-based presidential leadership may help the bridge generation attain personal fulfillment and professional success. Yet this bridge generation will also be responsible for championing new forms of partner engagement that do not fit the traditional mold and for educating trustees to accept and work with the new forms. Demographic and cultural trends at work in our society will probably motivate the bridge generation to tend to these issues for the sake of its own children, millennials and Generation Z members who may consider careers in higher education leadership in the future.
In the current environment, higher education associations, especially those working with trustees, can support the bridge generation by accepting and affirming a diversity of partner roles and contributions. Boards of trustees and executive recruiters who work for them can help by being open to conversations and negotiations with leading candidates and their spouses.
Looking beyond the bridge generation, higher education associations should also prepare their constituencies for a time when opportunities for leadership at urban/suburban commuter campuses and online institutions will outnumber opportunities at residential campuses.
Will the grandchildren of the baby boomers fulfill the Corbally prophecy? They might, if they carry into presidential searches the personal and professional choices that distinguish them, anecdotally and statistically, from their parents and grandparents: a preference for metropolitan areas over small towns (including many classic college towns), a belief that two-career couples are the norm in our society and the assumption that they will change jobs, if not careers, several times after graduate school.