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Just about any discussion of academic hiring these days, after the natural focus on the tight market, tends to come around to the issue of "dual career" hires or "partner accommodations." Most colleges say that they take the issue seriously and work hard to find positions for the partners of those being recruited. But what's the right way to do so?

The American Association of University Professors today is releasing guidance that suggests some ways for colleges to improve how they handle the hiring of faculty members who have partners who also want jobs. The guidance, prepared by the association's Committee on Women in the Academic Profession, generally called on colleges to be more explicit about their procedures, to be sure faculty members play a key role in the development and execution of policies, and to make sure that efforts to help academic couples don't come at the expense of adjuncts.

The guidance views efforts to help academic couples as highly favorable, noting that the AAUP's first statement on the subject came in 1971, when the association took a stand against the anti-nepotism policies common at many colleges then that effectively blocked the hiring of spouses. Today, the AAUP statement says, providing job options for academic couples is common and necessary.

"The provision of support for partners has a direct impact on the ability of dual-career academic couples to integrate successful careers with family responsibilities. Thus, assistance for academic partners can be an important part of any work/life balance initiatives," says the statement.

"In the absence of such accommodations, academic couples may find themselves faced with long-distance relationships or the subordination of one career to the partner who succeeds in securing a position. Evidence, such as the high proportion of women in part-time and contingent positions, and the relative lack of women in tenure-track positions in research universities, suggests that the lack of such arrangements may be having an adverse impact on the careers of academic women."

But while colleges routinely talk about providing help for academic couples, many of them don't do so in formal, consistent ways, and this is problematic, said Ann Higginbotham, chair of the panel that wrote the guidance and history chair at Eastern Connecticut State University.

"Many institutions are doing this on an ad hoc basis, and if they are going to do it, they should do it in a formal way," she said. When colleges look for a job for the spouse or partner of a "star" faculty member, but not for everyone, or when people don't know what the procedures are, "you get a lot of resentment and you exclude others," she said.

Here are some of the recommendations from the AAUP:

  • Institutions "should have a clearly worded policy that covers all full-time appointments rather than rely upon ad hoc arrangements available only on select bases."
  • Policies to help couples "should also be available to all couples, not just those in heterosexual marriages."
  • Policies "should be developed by appropriate faculty bodies or committees, not by the administration in the absence of meaningful faculty participation."
  • Policies "should address important issues such as the process by which decisions on dual-career appointments are reached, and the budgetary impact of those decisions. They should also include provision for maintaining open communication with the prospective faculty members, who should be kept informed of the process, and for adequate consultation on the arrangements with the department, if the latter is not directly responsible for employment negotiations."
  • Appointment decisions "should be made as part of a process driven by consideration of merit."
  • Departments asked to consider a dual-career appointment "must be free to refuse the appointment," and those proposing such appointments must "consider departmental hiring priorities and programmatic needs."
  • While "normal search procedures may have to be modified to take into account the limited time frame for making an offer to a candidate’s partner," these changes should never "infringe upon good governance practices or limit faculty involvement in the search process nor should they violate campus affirmative-action policies."
  • "Whenever possible, appointments should be made to tenure-track positions. Dual-career appointments should not be the occasion for increasing the number of contingent faculty members at an institution."
  • When identifying slots for partner hires, "every effort should be made not to replace contingent faculty members with partner-accommodation appointees."

Lisa E. Wolf-Wendel, a professor of higher education at the University of Kansas, is a leading expert on dual career policies, and she said that the AAUP recommendations are consistent with what most would define as "best practice." Wolf-Wendel, co-author of The Two-Body Problem: Dual-Career-Couple Hiring Practices in Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press), said that formal policies make sense. "Institutions are better off being upfront that they welcome dual career couples and to have that in writing, rather than whispering it to a couple of people here or there, shows that this matters. This shouldn't be viewed as coming in through the back door," she said.

When there have been backlashes against dual-career hiring, Wolf-Wendel said, they generally take one of three forms: concerns over quality, concerns over fairness, or concerns over strategic direction. She said that just having a formal policy along the lines suggested by the AAUP would deal with some of those concerns. At the same time, she said that such policies also require realistic conversations among faculty members.

It may be true, she said, that a partner hire may not be the absolute best person in the country for an opening, and may not be perfectly aligned with the research or teaching interests of a department being asked to consider a candidate. At the same time, she said, it's important to remember that "most searches aren't getting Nobel laureates."

The Adjunct Impact

The part of the AAUP guidance that may differ the most from current practice, Wolf-Wendel said, is about adjuncts. While the AAUP says that partner hires should be made on the tenure track and that existing adjuncts shouldn't be displaced, Wolf-Wendel said that they frequently are. She questioned whether many deans -- particularly in the current budget environment, but even after things get better -- would be willing to create tenure-track lines for partner hires.

At the same time, she said, there are clear injustices in the current system in which many of these positions are created as lectureships with the promise of "we'll see what we can do in the future." Many times, there isn't anything done, she said. For the faculty member who is in the tenured position, a career has been established and just leaving is not easy. For the partner, "if somebody is teaching a 4-4 load, that person isn't exactly blazing the trail on the publication front and the spouse becomes noncompetitive."

Given those realities, and the AAUP's argument that adjunct slots should become tenure-track lines, Wolf-Wendel said that "I think the AAUP is being very consistent and I applaud them in their consistency. They have got to express what the ideal would be." But asked how likely such an approach is to be adopted, she said: "Do I think it's realistic? I think it's optimistic."

The concerns over adjuncts being made to pay for others' spouses getting jobs are not hypothetical. The Buffalo News reported just last month about protests on behalf of a long-time adjunct at the State University of New York at Buffalo whose supporters believe she was not rehired so that the university could create a position for the spouse of a strongly recruited faculty member.

Higginbotham, who led the AAUP panel that wrote the guidance, said that she hears such stories all the time -- and she noted that these situations are unfair to the adjunct and the partner hire. "Long-time contingent faculty are being let go, people who have been employed for 10 or 20 years, are losing their jobs. And it creates a bad situation for the spousal hire right from the start."

While Higginbotham, when asked about the realism of expecting dual career hires to be on the tenure track, said "we know that it's not possible," she also said that it was important for the AAUP to take a principled stand. "As an organization, the AAUP simply does not support increasing the number of contingent faculty, even when we do it for a so-called good reason."

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