Are universities becoming family affairs?

Upon assuming his post at a new university, the freshly arrived senior administrator had an unusual request from his staff: he wanted a list of all married couples and other family-related members on the faculty. He surely had no intention of getting caught in awkward situations, where he might be discussing –say– a performance evaluation of a faculty member without knowing that a spouse or another family member was present.

Welcome indeed, to a new reality of academic life. The new class of ruling intellectuals, the “academic nobility”, the families who now staff universities around the world. But how this is happening? After all, universities like to think of themselves as the very embodiment of the spirit of meritocracy: institutions where all people are judged on their individual abilities rather than through their family connections.

Napoléon believed so religiously in the concept of “La carrière ouverte aux talents”, that he planted the seed of meritocracy in every facet of the French establishment: Légion d’honneur, Ecole Polytechnique, Ecole Normale Supérieure, Ecole Nationale d’Administration. You name it. Admission was judged not by ancestry or wealth but by military, scientific or artistic prowess.

Looking back a couple of hundred years later, and in an ironic turn of event, admission to these schools is surely heavily influenced by previous family connections to these schools. Indeed, it is more common than not to find now Polytechniciens whose fathers and grandfathers were Polytechniciens, and Normaliennes whose mothers were Normaliennes. Why? Because the entrance examinations for these schools are so selective and competitive that it doesn’t suffice to be clever to get in. The preparatory work is so hard and demanding that you need the sustained motivating, nurturing, training, assisting, and know-how influence of someone who has already survived it.  There are obviously exceptions, but it is clear that family members have a distinct advantage.

The situation is not much different in Ivy league schools, where here the story can obviously get embellished with North American tales of cronyism. It is also a fact that the children of academics are generally more inclined to be academics. There are many reasons for that, but that’s for another post.

However, the most defining, game changing, and still growing trend in universities worldwide is that we are seeing more and more intermarriages between academics. Through my reading I picked up the following idea:

“Maybe it’s the long hours in the lab. Maybe it’s the allure of putting heads together to analyze data. Maybe it’s those sexy lab coats. Whatever the reason, scientists appear to find each other attractive as romantic partners. Women scientists, in fact, are likelier than their counterparts in any other academic area to pair off with a departmental colleague. A Stanford University survey of 30,000 faculty members at 13 major research universities found 83% of the female scientists partnered with members of their own discipline”.

Why is this trend worth watching closely? Because more and more North American universities are going to great lengths to accommodate and facilitate the appointment of dual-career couples — at least the ones that include an academic they badly want to hire. This represents a truly major change from policies of decades past, where nepotism rules formerly forbade spouses from holding faculty posts in the same department or even the same university.

According to the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, a 2006 US survey data found about one-third of faculty were in a dual-career relationship with another academic. Then, closer to home, “of the 40-some faculty members in our department, 11 have tenure-track partners at UBC, and four of these couples are in our department! One couple formed here, but the rest were hired”. That was the state of that department in 2003!

This practice of accommodating so-called “two-body problems”, has surely helped certain universities in the global hunt for talent, but also contributed to alleviate issues of gender inequities on campuses.

But the more I think about it (and I admit that I didn’t do enough thinking about it before), and the more I experience related situations, I realize that these practices are not without their down side, albeit their potential effect on academic standards, or on certain ethical issues pertaining to the university governance.

“First, the very notion of considering personal circumstances in the hiring decision represents a departure from the policy of choosing only the “best” mind and talent for every job opening. Indeed, such extraneous preoccupations might themselves distort our concept of an academic vocation — valorizing “coupledom” over the single state, defining the academic community in inappropriately familial terms, asking for too intimate a connection between private life and public work.”

But the story doesn’t stop with the hiring decisions, because we also have to consider “coupledom” in retention decisions, which can be even more disruptive to a department/Faculty life. One can end up with situations,  where the –supposedly “indispensable”– faculty starts using his/her position to “get deals” for, or influence decisions regarding, his/her partner.

One can also wonder why we give special considerations to “spouses” or “partners” and are quick to find money to accommodate them, but we do not offer the same courtesy to other –sometimes as compelling– family relations, such as a widower and his son?

And, even if we are counting on this practice to correct gender inequities within universities, aren’t we doing something wrong when we are hiring sometimes a husband on the coattail of a wife with “star quality”? Didn’t we then discriminate against women candidates for the position taken by the “trailing husband”?

The internet is full of reports and articles on how to deal with the delicate issues of dual-career hiring, but there are almost none about the potential ethical pitfalls and conflicts of interest that these might generate once dual-career partners are well-anchored within a department or a Faculty… and I can recite a few.

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4 Responses to Are universities becoming family affairs?

  1. JoVE says:

    There are a bunch of important things tangled up here. And you are right that they need thinking through more clearly.

    The “two body problem” is indeed a big issue, and not only for academics. (If you know anyone at DFAIT, talk about the difficulties they have recruiting and retaining diplomats, for example.) Unfortunately, the opposition of spousal hiring to meritocratic hiring isn’t quite accurate, either. There are a lot of excellent candidates out there. In any search, the final decision is going to come down to some odd characteristic that people just prefer because, lets face it, hiring committees are often faced with multiple appointable candidates (even if you set the bar for “appointable” high).

    I’d also like to know more about how both the “stars” and the “trailing spouses” break down by gender.

    As to how so many people end up in academic couples, sociology of the family happens to be my area. It is actually incredibly common to meet your spouse at work or at university. Add in the long hours and the fact that a lot of graduate students talk about dropping outside activities while working on their PhDs, and you increase that likelihood because they just aren’t meeting that many other people. Then add in the intimacy of working together, long periods of time spent in each other’s company, etc. Oh, and the cultural shift to thinking of your spouse as a soul mate with whom you share everything, including your work. It’s not really that surprising.

    The other issues you raise about post-hire issues, including the point you open with are much less widely discussed though and possibly more important. I remember a colleague who was in a senior position talking about this years ago. He is a gay man and the issues appeared more stark to him because he really didn’t believe the issues would be so invisible and accepted if it were him and a colleague. He also had to deal with colleagues who were EX-partners, a fact that affected how they dealt with each other as colleagues and made it incredibly difficult to build consensus.

    • Ghoussoub says:

      I agree with you on every aspect of the subject that you brought up in your comment. The main issue in my post is what you really tackle at the end. It is too easy to deliberate on how to “handle” dual-career hiring and there is lots of “mode d’emploi” on the net. But the myriad of conflict/problematic situations that couples can get into, once inside the university structure is too varied, and that’s maybe why no one wants to touch it! Most academics do not “overreach”, which minimizes the problem, but when they do, I cannot find guidelines as to how to judge it, prevent it, or just deal with it. Please let me know if you find them somewhere.

  2. Nilima says:

    Ah, Nassif. You wander into interesting and treacherous waters here.

    L’amour is surely only one odd factor influencing whom we hire, fire or retain. There’s ‘fit with department’, which sometimes means ‘do you like the same kind of movies and jokes as I do?’

    I’ve heard concerns raised about the ‘trailing spouse’. Interestingly, I’ve heard fewer concerns about the ethical dilemmas around ‘stars who fizzled’, or ‘faculty who stopped publishing truly suck at teaching’, all of whom also ostensibly are taking up valuable jobs. For example: how is the presence of such colleagues in the ranks consistent with the (serious and reasonable) productivity demands on tenure-track colleagues?

    As to why women scientists tend to marry other scientists: let’s face it, folks typically don’t know what to do about a smart woman. Maybe a smart scientist is likelier to recognize our potential as a ‘snuggle bunny’ whilst simultaneously being a sharp thinker than the average population.

    If you pay for a beer, I will share with you my war stories from the front.

  3. Pingback: With the women of the “Laplacian”, who needs diversity tsars? | Piece of Mind

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