Education

Spousal accommodation policies must be improved (opinion)


My husband quit academe after almost two decades of teaching. The same week, I was tenured and promoted to the rank of associate professor at Dickinson College.

Our journey is common in higher education when it comes to scholars and their spouses both trying to land full-time positions at the same higher education institutions. And it raises important questions about bias, gender and equity for dual-career academics that many institutions have yet to answer adequately.

We met in 2008 at Florida State University. I had recently left my home country of Lebanon and migrated to the United States to pursue a doctoral degree in Francophone studies. He had started his doctorate in English. We fell in love right away and got married 11 months after. We both graduated in 2012. I landed a tenure-track position at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where he got a lecturer position in the general studies writing program.

It was not spousal accommodation but rather two independent hires, as both positions were advertised separately. We stayed in Bowling Green for two years. Living in a predominantly white, small rural town in America was something of a challenge. I started looking for jobs in big cities and was offered a tenure-track position at Stony Brook University on Long Island, N.Y. This round, we were not as lucky, as the university had no full-time positions in the English department. As such, my spouse accepted an adjunct position in the program in writing and rhetoric.

And then we discovered the hard way that: 1) Long Island is unaffordable for a young couple like us, especially when one has daycare expenses to cover and 2) spousal accommodation was not going to happen anytime soon. That pushed us to consider our options. On the job market we went again, and I was offered a tenure-track position at Dickinson.

In negotiating my contract, I asked for a full-time spousal accommodation and, once again, the answer was no. However, the college offered my husband an adjunct position in English and American studies. We agreed and moved to Carlisle, Pa., in 2018.

We immediately noticed the number of dual-career academic couples on campus, which is somewhat common in small college towns. Nevertheless, it felt like they were part of a secret club to which we were denied entry. We wondered how they managed to navigate the treacherous waters of negotiation for spousal accommodation. Was it a question of pure luck? Was it timing? Both my spouse and I were perplexed.

My research and personal experience indicate that colleges generally negotiate a spousal accommodation for a wife after a husband has accepted a position as senior administrator or in a tenured academic position. In other words, it is reserved for few high-ranked people who will generate money and/or publicity for the institution. As such, spousal accommodation has a hidden gendered attribute and is often assumed to be requested for a woman in a junior position following a man in a higher position. It seems to throw people off when the request comes instead from a woman acting on her husband’s behalf. An unspoken bias often exists—a view that the woman has emasculated her husband and is “wearing the pants,” while he is “not man enough” to find a job on his own.

I also noted that the concept of spousal accommodation is sometimes invoked to promote diversity—to recruit and retain faculty from underrepresented groups. While that’s an admirable idea, I am skeptical about how widely it is actually applied. I would be interested in seeing statistics on it, especially at a time when some institutions use diversity as a marketing tool and do surface-level work that does not necessarily address issues of systematic oppression. This kind of work feels performative and sounds great on a brochure. Other institutions have stretched the definition of diversity so wide to include everything and nothing.

In fact, it is fair to say that not much research has been done on spousal accommodation, although, while published in 2008, “Dual-Career Academic Couples. What Universities Need to Know” by Londa Schiebinger, Andrea Davies Henderson and Shannon K. Gilmartin continues to offer a solid foundation on the topic. It shows the myriad problems dual-career academic couples face and presents multiple recommendations. For instance, the study the book was based on statistically shows that dual-career academic couples are not a rarity, and as such, institutions should want to develop a dual-career hiring protocol to “compete for the best and the brightest.” This new hiring practice, the authors write, would support a diverse professoriate and “a more diverse, equitable, and competitive workforce, especially with regard to gender.”

For example, when an institution hires a woman as the first partner hired in the couple, this “breaks the stereotype of senior academics seeking to negotiate jobs for junior partners and may help universities achieve gender equality,” Schiebinger, Henderson and Gilmartin write. In addition, this practice shows a dual-career academic couple that the institution is willing to invest equally in both partners and that it strives to create a healthy work-life balance.

A Level of Secrecy

I’ve found that, at Dickinson, like many institutions, a level of secrecy surrounds the practice of spousal accommodation, which is inconsistently scattered across various departments. To my knowledge, the college, although seriously committed to diversity work, does not have a clear policy on spousal accommodation. But if higher education is interested in real diversity work, spousal accommodation for dual-career academic couples should be on the table, and adjunct positions do not and should not be viewed as spousal accommodation.

Indeed, if it were up to me, I would ban adjunct positions for spouses entirely for all the anxieties, unfairness and indignities that come with this temporary employment. While it allows for partners to move and stay together, it creates an unbalanced lifestyle where one partner is at a disadvantage, since “temporary positions typically do not provide the resources required to further careers,” in the words of Schiebinger, Henderson and Gilmartin. As many scholars have already reported, the pandemic highlighted and exacerbated adjuncts’ difficult working and living conditions: low pay and no job security, no retirement contribution from the employer, no health-care coverage, no dental and vision insurance, no paid sick days, no parental leave, no departmental support or access to research or travel funds, no raise for per-course pay … The list goes on. These are all things my husband had to cope with during his adjuncting years. He also had to face the elitism of some full-time faculty who consider themselves above adjuncts.

As academics, we preach about work ethics and importance of diversity, yet institutions are not willing to invest in guaranteeing a healthy work-life balance and dignified jobs that would retain not only faculty members in general but also, more important, those from underrepresented groups. Worse, institutions are willing to take advantage of adjuncts who are the most vulnerable among us—and those of us who are full-time academics are oftentimes willing participants in this vicious cycle of inequity.

According to the 2022 AAUP Survey of Tenure Practices, in 2019, only “10.5 percent of appointments were tenure track, 26.5 percent tenured, 20 percent full-time contingent, and 43 percent part-time contingent.” Higher education institutions cannot preach about diversity, equity and inclusion and pay thousands of dollars to employ chiefs of diversity yet heavily rely on adjuncts. They must steer away from contingent employment altogether, and they must invest in faculty members’ lives and create clear retention policies that include spousal accommodation.

After nearly two decades of teaching, my husband quit his job. While he is struggling to redefine himself, he said he finally feels liberated. He is done being the trailing spouse. Academe lost one hell of a professor. But seeing how the academic world had mistreated him—despite pretending to be a bastion of progressive values—I have no other choice but to fully support his decision and to rejoice for his newly acquired freedom


Inside Higher Ed reached out to Dickinson College, and Neil B. Weissman, provost, dean of the college and professor of history, had the following comment: “Dickinson College supports partner hiring, offering positions—full-time and part-time—when needs, financial resources and a candidate’s credentials create opportunities. Offers are made on a case by case basis. All candidates for partner hires are fully informed of the terms of an offer before a position is accepted.”

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