Scrutiny for a Presidential Spouse

U. of Tennessee banned wife of system's leader from contact with donors and employees -- and lifted ban only after stipulating her lack of authority.
December 1, 2008

The presidential spouse -- whether Michelle Obama or the partner of a campus leader -- is the subject of constant scrutiny. And many presidents and spouses say that issues related to spouses and their role need more attention and better definition to avoid cases of unrealistic expectations by either institutions or the spouses involved.

While criticism of spouses (along with praise) goes on constantly, a controversy at the University of Tennessee offers an unusually public look at what can happen when expectations aren't clear -- and when a spouse's actions are questioned.

Carol Petersen, wife of the system president, John Petersen, was recently banned by the university's board from any contact with donors or staff members at the university following an incident in which she is alleged to have treated a donor rudely, leaving the donor in tears. The ban was lifted only after John Petersen wrote a letter to the university pledging that his wife's activities would be conducted only as a volunteer and with no authority over anyone. President Petersen also acknowledged that the incident and its handling would be part of his five-year review, currently being conducted by his board. The situation escalated to a point that the state's governor, Phil Bredesen, was informed.

The Knoxville News Sentinel obtained and published a series of documents about the argument between Carol Petersen and Laura Morris, who quit as chair of a group of female donors to the university three days after the altercation, citing her treatment by Petersen at a reception at the presidential home was ending. According to a joint written account by two development officials who witnessed the exchange, Carol Petersen criticized Morris for having a fund raising idea that was too "Knoxville-centric" and then questioned her leadership of the fund raising group. (The flagship campus of the Tennessee system is at Knoxville.)

"The verbal attack continued despite our attempts to diffuse the situation" and Morris was "in tears by the end of the exchange," the development officials reported. They added that they escorted Morris from the residence, and that on their way out they could hear Carol Petersen yelling at her husband about "those people." Laura Morris and her husband, Steven, are major donors to the university.

The altercation was in October, but became public when the Knoxville newspaper published documents describing the ban the university's board had placed on Carol Petersen. A letter from the vice chair of the board to John Petersen said that as "an initial response to this situation, we have agreed that you and Carol will develop a plan to provide me with some assurance that instances like this will not happen in the future. We have also agreed that until I receive and approve this plan, Carol will avoid any contact with university donors and staff (other than house staff at the residence)."

The ban was lifted following a letter from John Petersen to the board in which he apologized and indicated that his wife's status would be that of a volunteer, while working toward "better clarified roles and expectations" about her role. John Peterson's letter said that the incident with Morris was "unfortunate and regrettable" and that both Petersens "accept responsibility for all guest experiences in our house and apologize for anything perceived to be unpleasant." He also wrote that he had expressed this apology to Morris and her husband.

As to Carol Petersen's role, John Petersen wrote: "The spouse of a university president has a certain role but Carol agrees with me that as she participates in university activities, she does so as any other volunteer. Her opinions will be her own and she does not have authority over other volunteers or staff. We acknowledge that volunteers and staff are free to disagree with Carol without fear of any reprisal." He added that he was aware that "the board is in the process of its comprehensive five year review of my performance and that our mutual commitment to the goals of this letter is a factor in that process."

The Petersens have not been commenting on the situation, although the Knoxville paper has published numerous comments -- many of them harshly critical of Carol Petersen. Many also suggest that the Petersens -- coming from his previous job as provost of the University of Connecticut -- somehow lacked enough knowledge of the state's traditions to be effective. A profile of Carol Petersen that ran in a Tennessee alumni publication after her husband was named president described how she gave up a teaching career when her husband was named provost at UConn to focus on activities supporting the university and his job.

Michael Schultz, associate vice president for development at the University of Vermont, is currently writing his doctoral dissertation on the spouses of university presidents. While Schultz said he didn't know the Petersens or have any knowledge of the Tennessee situation, he said his research has suggested the importance of communication between a president, his or her spouse, and trustees about expectations. "Lack of communication has the potential to set up issues," he said.

Schultz said that the Tennessee situation also illustrated how just about any dispute involving a university's first couple isn't going to stay secret, as might have been the case a generation ago. "People are going to have opinions about spouses," he said, and if there is a misstep, it most likely will become public.

Several experts on presidential spouses said that they did not want to be quoted on the matter out of respect for the Petersens, or because they think the Petersen situation is unusual only in becoming public, not its circumstances. They also agreed that the Tennessee situation illustrates, as much as anything, the contradictions facing the presidential spouse today.

One person who has dealings with presidents, spouses and boards said that it is true that an absolute rule of life in the presidential home is never to be rude to a major donor and that -- if the reports on the Tennessee situation are correct -- this was violated.

But this expert went on to note that the idea that presidential spouses can function without any authority or explicit role is unfair to them, and that they should get some formal indication of board expectations and their role.

"Boards -- especially at public universities -- expect spouses to be involved, to be waving the flag and entertaining. I've had spouses tell me that they know if they are not present and involved, board members will ask where they were," said this expert. "Presidential spouses are in a very, very difficult position in that they have high visibility and oftentimes little and no authority. Spouses who are involved want to take ownership of events they organize and they want them to run correctly and so, yes, they sometimes express their points of view less diplomatically than they should.... No good deed goes unpunished."


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