Presidential Spouses and Partners: Clarifying Expectations

In the abbreviated circumstances of presidential searches, Susan Resneck Pierce asks, how can the spouse or partner ensure a clear understanding of their responsibilities?

January 4, 2019
 
 
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In recent years, we have occasionally seen sensational national stories about presidential spouses whose behavior was deemed inappropriate and sometimes illegal. They include claims that one presidential spouse was smoking marijuana in the president’s house and that another was inappropriately entertaining underage students in a campus guest house. Most recently, we’ve read news reports about the sexual harassment charges against the husband of the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Whitewater that ultimately led to her resignation.

Colleges and universities have also had various other problems with presidential spouses or partners that fortunately haven't approach this level but have nevertheless created trauma. I have received calls from friends who are board chairs asking for advice about how to deal with such difficult situations. One was distressed that the presidential spouse routinely yelled at and otherwise demeaned staff members. She even demanded that the staff “stand at attention” when she entered the room.

A second board chair voiced concerns about a spouse who the chair believed was damaging both morale on the campus and relationships with some key donors by micromanaging every aspect of her husband’s life. She controlled his daily calendar and insisted on approving who would be invited to campus events at which her husband was present -- eliminating members of the campus community and donors whom she did not like.

These spouses saw themselves as royal figures deserving of attention and deference at all times, rather than viewing their role as serving the institution.

Such negative stories don’t represent the vast majority of presidential spouses/partners, who are exemplary in their behavior and give generously of their time and talents, often without pay. One spouse who stands out to me is Anne Gordon, wife of former Defiance College president Mark Gordon. Indeed, Anne went above and beyond any I know. Among other things, as an Inside Higher Ed piece described, the Gordons turned their home into a nightly study hall, with Anne providing individual tutoring to students. She also routinely made dinner and snacks for the students.

The positive and negative examples I’ve cited point to the fact that the all-important notion of fit is crucial. But in the abbreviated circumstances of presidential searches, how do all parties gauge whether the fit among themselves is right? And how do the spouse/partner, president and board leaders share a similar understanding of the role and their relationship to one another?

The fit with the campus culture is also important, which may or may not be dependent on the nature of the institution, its size and its location. For example, small private colleges may have different expectations for the presidential spouse/partner than large public ones; institutions in small towns or rural areas may have different expectations than those in large metropolitan areas. Coming to a judgment about fit is made more complicated by the limiting factor that search committee members and other people involved in the hiring process cannot legally ask candidates personal questions.

In an Inside Higher Ed piece, Clara Lovett suggests that presidents and their partners, as she prefers to call them, be interviewed and hired as a team. She also notes that higher education attorney Ray Cotton agrees that the partners be part of the hiring process and have a paid, contractual relationship with the institution.

This approach to defining the role of spouses/partners easily pertains to those instances when they seek a formal role as “first lady” or “first gentleman” of the institution. In these instances, it is common sense that all parties -- the board leadership, the potential presidents and the spouses/partners -- must be comfortable with the arrangement. Specifically, I suggest that they reach a mutual understanding about the following questions:

  • Will the spouses/partners serve as house managers for the president’s house?
  • Should they organize social events at which the president is present?
  • Should they serve as the president’s social secretary?
  • Should they accompany the president on meetings with alumni and donors?
  • If any of this is the case, should they be paid, and if so, how much?
  • Should they report to the vice president for institutional advancement or to the appropriate board committee?
  • Should the institution provide them with staff support? If so, that is something that should also be defined explicitly.

There are other questions of process. Here, my recommendations differ depending on whether the spouse/partner wishes to play a paid/formal role or not.

If they wish to play a paid/formal role, I recommend that the institution follow its normal hiring procedures for members of the senior administration, including background checks. If there is a nepotism policy, the board needs to decide whether it wishes to change that policy or make an exception to it (the latter being more politically charged).

As for interviews, the spouse/partner should meet with members of the administration responsible for development and alumni relations as well as with a few trustees who serve on the appropriate board committees -- again to clarify expectations and responsibilities. Although circumstances can vary from institution to institution, in most cases, spouses or partners should coordinate their work with the vice president for institutional advancement and, if necessary, the responsible trustee committee. The board should also make it clear from the outset that the vice president does not report to the spouse/partner.

In contrast, if the spouse/partner has a full-time career or other interests and does not plan to play a formal role on campus, treating the spouse/partner as a potential employee does not seem applicable. Even so, I advocate that board leaders, the president and the spouse/partner have a conversation about roles and responsibilities. This is not an insignificant matter because, as some of my earlier examples illustrate, even a spouse or partner with no formal role can have significant influence on the life of the campus. Moreover, because relationships sometimes evolve, the role of the presidential spouse or partner might shift over time. And sometimes, as in my case, presidents are single when they are appointed but later marry.

Thus, whatever the role the spouse/partner envisions, I strongly encourage presidential finalists, their spouse/partner and the board leadership to come to a clear understanding of the role that person will play and be comfortable with the arrangement. Although this kind of conversation happens with some searches, I know of a number of instances where because it did not take place, problems later emerged.

A Mindful Approach

I also recommend that a first-time president, their spouse/partner and perhaps the board leadership come to an understanding of how the life of the presidential couple may be affected. Conversations with experienced presidents and their spouses or partners would be helpful. For example, I suspect that few boards and incoming presidential spouses/partners understand the adjustment that will be required of them. Presidents almost certainly will become public figures whose time is not their own. For such couples, something as simple as a quiet dinner at a restaurant or an uninterrupted date night at a movie, play or concert is elusive because students, faculty, community members, alumni and even parents “want just a moment” of the president’s time.

One of my most vivid memories along those lines: only a few months into our marriage, after promising my late husband, Ken, a private dinner for just the two of us at a favorite out-of-the-way San Francisco restaurant, we were interrupted by four different people or groups. On our walk back to our hotel, my new husband said to me, “Honey, if I’d known what it meant to be married to a college president, I might have had second thoughts.” I replied, “Too late.” We laughed and remained happily, if publicly, married.

In light of that phenomenon, I recommend that board leaders be mindful of such encroachments on the presidential couple’s personal time and give them some moments together. For example, the board might fund the travel of the spouse/partner to alumni or fund-raising events or to meetings or conferences that offer programs for spouses/partners.

Boards might also be mindful that the presidential partner/spouse has talents of their own and might benefit from having some activities separate from the president. I know of trustees who have been responsible for facilitating the service of spouses/partners on nonprofit boards in the community or other types of volunteer work.

If the institution has a campus-owned president’s house, I recommend that the president, spouse/partner and board leaders come to a mutual understanding of what that means, regardless of the role the spouse/ partner will play. For instance, how much entertaining is the president expected to do? Is there an entertainment budget? How will the cleaning, care of the grounds and long-term maintenance of the president’s house be determined and funded? Is there a budget for this or a process for board approval for unusual expenses?

Finally, there is the question of how presidential spouses/partners avoid becoming the subject of negative press like the examples I cited at the beginning of this piece. Here the best approach is for them to recognize that, by virtue of their relationship with the president, they are also public figures whose personal actions almost certainly will be scrutinized by members of the extended campus community, the local community and beyond, and the press. In other words, they need to be comfortable, as the cliché goes, seeing their actions described on the front page of the local newspaper.

And again, what's most important, whatever role the presidential spouse/partner may play -- active or passive, paid or unpaid, formal or informal -- is that the board leaders, president and spouse/partner jointly define that role before the presidential appointment is made.

Bio

Susan Resneck Pierce is president emerita of the University of Puget Sound and president of SRP Consulting. Her most recent books are On Being Presidential: A Guide for College and University Leaders, (Jossey Bass, 2012) and Governance Reconsidered: How Boards, Presidents, Administrators and Faculty Can Help Their Colleges Thrive (Jossey Bass, 2014).

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