Marital Difficulties

Controversy at U. of Vermont raises questions about vetting of presidential partners and spouses and what their roles should be.
August 12, 2011

When a board hires a college president, it takes on a lot more than just a new leader.

While there is debate about whether it's fair or right, the spouse or partner of that new president is thrust into a vaguely defined, often involuntary role around campus that often combines symbolic duties with fund-raising and entertaining. While expectations for this type of activity vary by institution, spouses or partners are likely to come under a microscope, and their actions can often lead to problems for the institution.

That situation led to a controversy at the University of Vermont over the actions of Rachel Kahn-Fogel, the president's wife, whose pursuit of a relationship with a senior administrator and subsequent admission of a longstanding battle with mental illness led to the premature departure of her husband, Daniel Fogel, as the university's president.

In the wake of the controversy, the university's board of trustees released a report Wednesday calling for reforms of how it handles presidential spouses. While the trustees found that no laws or policies were contravened, Kahn-Fogel’s behavior was "inappropriate and imprudent" in ways that undermined the university's "guidelines and values." The report also found that there was a "lack of clarity" surrounding Kahn-Fogel's role at the university that caused confusion.

Vermont is not the only university struggling to cope with an embarrassing issue regarding a presidential spouse or trying to figure out the proper role for such individuals. In 2008 the University of Tennessee banned the president's wife from any contact with donors or staff members at the university following an incident in which she was alleged to have treated a donor rudely. The president left soon after the incident. The president of Union College of Kentucky recently announced that he was taking a leave of absence in the wake of the revelation that his wife was arrested for operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The wife was a faculty member and administrator at the college, though she is no longer employed there. Other administrators have written about the issue.

The called-for reforms in Vermont push for greater communication during the hiring process from both the presidential couple and the board about what they expect the role of the spouse or partner to be, as well as disclosure about any potentially embarrassing issues that might hurt the university's reputation. The Vermont trustees, as well as several consultants involved in the hiring process, argue that putting everything on the table -- often a tough thing to do -- can help prevent confusion like the kind that happened at Vermont from occurring down the road.

"The responsibility for defining the role of the president's spouse falls in the lap of the board, and by and large boards are not doing it," said Raymond Cotton, a Washington lawyer who specializes in presidential contracts.

While these recommendations seem like good ideas in theory, there are practical barriers to carrying them out. The proposals raise both ethical and legal questions about what a board can and should do during a search, as well as what it is reasonable to expect from a presidential spouse. Boards and spouses might have very different expectations of what the role should entail, and both are reluctant to discuss the topic out of fear of torpedoing a candidate.

The Vermont trustees' major recommendation was that board members discuss with a candidate’s spouse or partner their expectations for the spouse's role and define clear parameters for that role, including potentially crafting a job title for the presidential spouse. That was a sentiment that several search consultants and others involved with the presidential hiring process echoed as a way to potentially avert problems.

Lucy Leske, co-director of the education and not-for-profit practice at the search firm Witt/Kieffer, said defining the spouse’s role in fund-raising is a reasonable expectation, but probably only doable if there is a formal agreement about the duties that person will assume. But many institutions are uncomfortable about making formal arrangements, she said.

Consultants pointed to several reasons why a board or candidate might not broach the subject during the hiring process. Many board members come from the business world, Cotton said, where spouses are less visible. Board members might also not want to pay the spouse, and fear that they will have to if they bring up their expectations of the role, which often translate to a full-time job. Candidates might be reluctant to bring the issue up out of fear that it will hurt their candidacies. If the board rejects the role that he or she envisions for a spouse, that could end up affecting the board's view of them. Spouses might also be too occupied with their own careers, family lives, or the moving process to be concerned about a role on a new campus. The fact that many adopt roles once they arrive on campus, well after the hiring process is complete, also complicates matters.

One reason conflicts can occur is that presidents' spouses and boards often have two different frames of reference, Cotton said. Boards have expectations based on the previous presidents' spouses, while the spouses have expectations based on their roles at previous institutions. Sitting down during the hiring process is key, Cotton said. He said he often encourages boards, candidates, and spouses to draft a one-page outline of the expectations for the spouse and have the spouse periodically report to the chair of the board.

More and more frequently, spouses may choose not to adopt a role on campus, often because they are engaged in their own careers. Narcisa A. Polonio, vice president for research, education, and board leadership services for the Association of Community College Trustees, said expectations of boards tend to vary by region and institution. Institutions in the South, as well as small liberal arts colleges, often have higher expectations for spouses than do other institutions.

One other major recommendation from Vermont’s review was that the university should expand its "due diligence" during the candidate phase of recruitment to include a presidential candidate’s spouse or partner if the spouse or partner could be involved – directly or indirectly – with campus planning, development work, or other university activities. But that recommendation faces some legal and ethical hurdles.

Federal laws prohibit inquiring into a person's marital status during a job interview, and most states have invasion of privacy laws that would prohibit too extensive an investigation of a spouse's background. If the spouse were being considered for a clearly defined job on campus, then it might be proper to inquire into his or her background in the same way that it would be for other candidates, but it would be improper for the university to explore one volunteer’s background in a manner different from that used with others, Cotton said.

Jessica S. Kozloff, a search consultant with Academic Search, Inc. and the former president of Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, said part of her job is to make sure that potentially damaging information comes to light before the board makes a decision. That can usually be done when consultants or boards conduct background checks. Several search consultants relayed stories of board members doing their own research about candidates and spouses. "Search committees inherently want to know what else is coming with the president," Leske said. "We're people."

Some people object to the idea that spouses should even be a factor in a board’s decision. One search consultant said colleges should get out of having expectations of spouses. Searches, this consultant said, should be about presidents.

“Boards need to recognize that they are there to hire one individual as the president, and not the couple,” Polonio said.

Even with strong vetting procedures in place, and even if roles are clearly defined and understood, boards might just have to accept the fact that they can't always control what will happen, and that there are likely to be some incidents that embarrass an institution. "Boards can’t guard against the nature of human beings," Cotton said. "We can and sometimes do engage in embarrassing activities."


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