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Thursday, October 06, 2011

On two-academic couples

Jeffrey Harrison, on his blog Class Bias in Higher Education, had a post a few weeks ago on what he calls The New Cronyism, at the core of which is schools' practice of finding jobs for spouses of faculty candidates and members. Harrison labels this "cronyism" because it involves hiring or pushing someone for a job on something other than merit, in this case the identity of who that person is married to. Harrison identifies three common forms of this cronyism: 1) the Dean calling in favors around town to help the spouse land a job; 2) another department in the university hiring (or at least considering) the spouse; and 3) the law school hiring (or at least considering) the spouse. Harrison argues this is no different than the old-boys'-network hiring of the 1970s.

But it seems to me there is a difference between cronyism that creates and perpetuates a closed hiring system and steps taken, at least in appropriate cases (whatever that means--see below), to enable couples and families to create a workable living situation while both pursue successful careers. Given modern realities of two-career/often two-academic couples and the fact that the numbers of such couples are only going to increase, schools must  consider accommodating or trying to arrange accommodations for spouses, of all genders (a heterosexual male faculty member is just as likely these days to have a wife with a career as the converse). And this is no longer limited to lateral couples; more and more entry-level candidates either have a spouse already in teaching or a spouse on the market at the same time. Last year, we made four entry-level offers and three had academic spouses. The year before, two of our entry-level candidates had spouses who already had been teaching law for several years. In the end, we were not able to hire any of them, for a variety of reasons, but considerations of the spouses' career were part of every conversation.

This also may be an example of academia (especially legal academia) being a unique business, given the small number of jobs, their often-smaller locations, and the lack of geographic control that (most) faculty have. If I am a practicing lawyer and my wife is a teacher and we live or move to Chicago, there is a good chance we both (eventually, assuming a decent economy) will be able to pursue our careers. Or, if I am a practicing attorney in Chicago and I decide to change jobs, there is a pretty good chance I will be able to find something in Chicago and my wife will not have to change jobs at all. By contrast, my chances of getting a teaching job in Chicago are relatively small. If my only teaching opportunity is in Norman, OK (sorry to pick on you, Sooners), my lawyer wife's options to pursue her career are going to be more limited and may require the assistance of someone (such as the law school dean) who can at least put her on the radar of potential employers. And if we both are academics, her options are even more limited. Without the possibility of a hire at the same university (in or out of the same department) or at least some help in the community, the option is surrender one of our careers or live apart--neither of which is appealing to many couples and families.

Harrison's argument against these sorts of hires or actions rests on three points. One, he believes it is a bad idea, that having spouses occupy two positions in the same department is worse than having two unrelated people in those positions. Two, and related, the spouse often is someone the school would not otherwise consider. Three, he believes it is unnecessary to hire the spouse to keep the faculty member, because losing the faculty member is not that big a deal--"from about the 20th ranked law school on down we are all basically fungible. No faculty member leaving any of those schools will create a hardship or a change in quality." Jeff has been teaching much longer than I have and I have no first-hand experience with same-department spouses, so I cannot speak to the first point. I question the fungibility of all faculty, if for no other reason than an equally capable teacher and scholar may not be as good a colleague as my current one.

One way to think about this may be to fine-grain our understanding of hiring spouses within one department. We can identify four possible scenarios: 1) Both people are independently strong and needed (in terms of curricular fit) candidates who would be hired independently; hiring both becomes a recruiting tool so they can be in the same place and allows us to fill two needs at once; 2) One person is needed, the spouse isn't, but the spouse is a credible candidate who is qualified (or better) for a faculty position at the school and would, in fact, be a good addition to the faculty; again, hiring them both is a recruiting tool so they can be in the same place and we benefit from having another good person on the faculty; 3) the trailing spouse truly is just along for the ride and would not be a viable or hirable candidate on his own; and 4) the trailing spouse is not an academic but thinks an academic job would be a lot of fun, so please hire him.

I agree that numbers 3 and 4 are problematic, in that standards are genuinely being changed or ignored and could come back to haunt the school. But the other two situations might work to the benefit of a hiring school (especially a lower-ranked one) in attracting faculty. And the line between #2 and # 3 certainly is highly subjective and fuzzy, if not ethereal; faculty will disagree about which category a particular spouse/candidate falls into. And there is a risk that we may convince ourselves, wrongly, that a # 3 really is a # 2 just because we want the spouse/primary candidate so much. On the other hand, at a school that is less bound to curricular needs and can do a lot of "best-athlete" hiring (usually not us, unfortunately), the line between # 1 and # 2 largely disappears. And it may be a question of degree--if the spouse is in category # 3, how far below our standards does he fall? And if only a little, sometimes the trade-off be worth it for some other benefit.

What is not clear from Jeff's post is the objections to hiring a faculty spouse, beyond the cronyism (which, again, strikes me as less nefarious in form than older versions)? Let's assume spouses who fall in my first or second categories. What is the problem? Is it a concern that the couple will vote as a bloc or that one spouse will control the other, thus giving that faculty member "two votes" (sort of like the old joke about Justices Scalia and Thomas and how they should just give Scalia two votes in every case)? Is it that they will bring their domestic spats into the workplace, creating tension? Is it that the marriage might fail and then you have two faculty members who fundamentally do not get along? Is it that they will get special accommodations (say, with scheduling) to manage their family obligations that other faculty do not receive? Is it that we will be unable to make difficult, principled P&T decisions if one of the couple does not pan out as a scholar/teacher, knowing that the denial means losing the spouse, or, at the very least, really angering the spouse? The last one carries some heft, but is it only a difference of degree from the reaction to any P&T denial?  If, to the extent possible, we ensure that both partners fall within # 1 or # 2 (or even not to far out of the range in # 3) in my division, we reduce that risk. To say nothing of the fact that only 5 % of tenure candidates in the legal academy are denied tenure.

The problems with other-department hires are even less clear. It could raise financial issues, if the law school is contributing funds to pay the spouse's salary in another department (a practice at some schools). Of course, at other schools, the provost's office gets involved, recognizing this new reality and the need to get the university behind some efforts to recruit and retain faculty. It still puts the faculty and administration in the other department in a bind come P&T time, knowing that the law school is depending on a favorable decision from this department to keep the law professor. It potentially strains relations between the law school and other departments, at least depending on how heavy a hand the law school dean plays--"please take a look at X" is very different than "you must hire X." Again, the hope is that the spouse we are recommending is a # 1 or # 2 for that other department and that we are not asking them to lower their standards for their tenure-track hiring. Quality control need not be lost.

Finally, from personal experience, I would like to think that some cases work out well. When I was hired at FIU, I asked the dean for help getting my wife entree with FIU's School of Social Work and/or School of Criminology and Criminal Justice (she has masters' degrees in both areas). At the time, we were not truly a two-academic couple in the usual sense, since she had never held an academic job and she was not necessarily looking for a tenure-track position. The School of Social Work hired her as a visiting faculty member and assistant coordinator of their externship program and eventually put her on a non-tenure-track line and made her the coordinator. Would they have interviewed her without a "can you take a look at her?" from the law school dean (category # 2 of Jeffrey's model)? Hard to say. But nine years later she is associate director of the school and was chosen for a university leadership development program. And I have turned down potential opportunities at other schools so we both can pursue what we have here, which features administrative opportunities she would not have elsewhere, at least right away. So I guess that school is grateful that my position on the law faculty presented her to them and the law school (or at least one or two people at the law school) are grateful that her position in Social Work connects us to the university. Even if it is a form of cronyism.

Of course, things might have been different if I also had been trying to get her hired at the law school or into a tenure-earning job in Social Work. And maybe we just got lucky and so did the other department. My point is that, while there are risks, per se opposition to the practice may deprive law schools, other departments, and universities of real benefits. And labeling it with a pejorative like cronyism does not help. 

Update: Jennifer Hendricks picks up the thread and notes an underlying gender issues that I did not address: Even if the overall trend is that more and more faculty of both genders have "trailing" spouses/partners with out-of-the-home careers who will need some help, male faculty remain more likely to have a stay-at-home spouse than female faculty do. Thus, any flat refusal or reluctance to hire or help spouses potentially has a disparate impact on hiring women.


Another Update: A reader emails and makes a good point: Recruiting couples (or helping a spouse in another department in the university) is as likely (if not more likely) to allow a school to get people they would not otherwise get as it is to stick a school with someone it doesn't want. And I think that's right. If A is a law professor with 2d tier credentials and his spouse is a law professor with Top-50 credentials, maybe a lower-ranked school could get both by being willing to hire both.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 6, 2011 at 02:00 PM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink

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Comments

This comparison to "cronyism" sounds ridiculous on its face. Cronyism is inherently inefficient, insofar as it leaves the employer with worse employees than it would have if did not engage in cronyism. Conversely, accommodating two lawyer/academic households is efficient, insofar as it leaves the employer with better employees than it would have if it did not do this. This is particularly true for schools that are located outside of major population hubs.

But let me raise a different beef with law schools, which is law professors having to try to create controversy around really stupid propositions, for the sake of trying to differentiate their thinking from everyone else.

Posted by: Meh | Oct 6, 2011 3:44:23 PM

Howard, lets take the definition of cronyism: "partiality to close friends." I would actually use a different word, nepostism, to describe the practice. Your basic rebuttal, I think, is that nepotism can sometimes create good results and also creates the benefit that you get the initial person (so the power to appoint cronys can be considered a perk). Both points are true enough. Augustus, who got into his position because he was the nephew of Julius Caesar, was a pretty good emperor. And by allowing Caesar to appoint his successor we got Caesar, too. But then we also get Nero. And history shows that we get far more Neros than Augustuses when you have this kind of familial preference--or to use your language we regularly start confusing #2 with #3, and it usually does not work out well.

Posted by: TJ | Oct 6, 2011 4:33:21 PM

I think you ignore the class dimension to the original post, which given the title of the blog I would think would be pretty important.

Can we say anything about the class background of two-academic couples versus one-academic couples or singletons - at least on average?

I haven't run the numbers, but I suspect that for a number of reasons a random member of a two-academic couple would come from a more privileged background than a random candidate not from a two-academic couple.

Ultimately the fairness critique of cronyism (as distinct from the efficacy critique) is that you crowd out people who aren't cronies.

Posted by: Brad | Oct 6, 2011 5:04:58 PM

What reasons, for example?

Posted by: EH | Oct 6, 2011 5:09:54 PM

And if diversity is something a school is after, spousal hires tend to (not always, of course - depends on the fact) get in the way.

Posted by: Kristen | Oct 6, 2011 5:10:46 PM

It doesn't get in the way of gender diversity, Kristen!

Nepotism may be a better name than cronyism, but the school can evaluate both candidates before getting either (unlike the Caesar example). It does not allow for a generic "plus one" job offer. So the big concern is that the school will get some type 3s. To the extent schools are perfect predictors of the quality of potential faculty members, that might be troubling. But given that probably many faculties have passed up people who turned out to be fantastic and--wholly apart from spousal hires--hired people who turned out to be fine but fall short of expectations, the concerns are probably overblown.

Posted by: anonymous | Oct 6, 2011 8:46:54 PM

Thank you all for the comments.

1) I do not see why a two-academic couple is any more or less likely to come from a more-privileged background than two single academics.

2) The diversity issue is complicated and potentially goes in all different directions, depending on what type of diversity we're talking about. It can help or hurt racial diversity, depending on the race/ethnicity of the couples you are recruiting. And it actually can help gender diversity. When I was in law school 15 years ago, there was backlash from the students that the school only seemed to be targeting women who, while strong candidates in themselves (category 1 or 2, above), were married to men who were even stronger candidates. So while the school saw it as recruiting a great couple, students saw it as recruiting the man but simply taking the woman as an add-on (but claiming credit for a gender-diverse hire).

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 6, 2011 8:54:41 PM

I just don't see the class dimension of spousal hires in categories 1 & 2. One thing to consider beyond attempting to assist couples with the two-bodies/two-careers problem is that if the couple does decide to commute, that is, have a long-distance relationship, both schools will suffer. If I am leaving Boston asap after my last Wednesday class to make it to NY so that I can spend part of the week with my partner, I am contributing less to the law school community. I am less available for both students and faculty and my scholarship may suffer just from the time lost traveling. Just look at how this works with visiting professors and if that is not apparent, ask some of their students...I would argue that as long as the two partners are close in skill, more is gained by hiring the pair than by splitting them up and taking a technically stronger candidate in the spouse's place.

There is, of course, no way to fairly hire around the long-distance couple. A school would have to penalize hires who have spouses elsewhere, which comes a little too close to penalizing someone for having a working spouse.

Long-distance arrangements would seem to discourage those with children and with it, many people who come to teaching from less traditional backgrounds. Moreover, if it is normally the wife that gets the kids, does it not just further gender stereotypes to have dad jetting off during the week and leaving mom to attempt it all on her own while he's gone?

If everyone is fungible under the top-20, why not hire in ways that accommodate modern notions of family and which do not penalize those who found themselves with a family before reaching the academy?

Posted by: LDR | Oct 6, 2011 9:02:11 PM

A few reasons might be:

Wealthier people tend to have their (first) marriages later in life, and the chances are better of marrying another academic after you both have gone at least a little down that path then by happenstance.

People are more likely to marry from within their social class than outside it. Independently academics are more likely to come from privileged backgrounds than non-privileged backgrounds. Multiplying the two independent variables gives a stronnger probability than either factor alone. Consider the pairings, the mixed couple is unlikey because of the first tendency, and the both from underprivileged backgrounds is unlikey because of the second tendency, that leaves both from privileged backgrounds as the most likely scenario.

Finally, absent parental support, the easiest way to survive the low/no income period that occurs at the beginning of many academic careers is to have a gainfully employed spouse.

Like I said, I don't have the data, but I'd be very surprised if it showed otherwise.

Posted by: Brad | Oct 7, 2011 12:40:29 AM

Brad: None of that suggests that two-academic couples are uniquely from privileged backgrounds as opposed to two-CAREER couples. Yes, academics are more likely to come from privileged and they are more likely to marry someone of a similar background. But that is going to be true whether the spouse is an academic or a doctor or lawyer or business executive. Nor does it show that an unmarried academic is more likely to be from a non-privileged background.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 7, 2011 12:52:06 AM

I should note that I fundamentally object to your category #2, in that category #2 consists entirely of people who either are category #1 or category #3. Either the spousal relation is outcome-determinative (in which case it is #3), or it isn't (#1). There is no in-between when the school has a binary choice of hiring the person or not. And contrasting #1 and #3 fundamentally illustrates the downsides of nepotism.

Posted by: TJ | Oct 7, 2011 3:55:43 AM

My husband was a spousal hire at my school (not in law) and that hire was the chief reason I was able to take the job. So of course I am biased in this debate. I will say that he is a person of color and we are both from underprivileged background (perhaps not the norm I admit but it doesn't look like any of us have evidence on that one).

We have many spousal hires at our school (perhaps common at a big university where there is even an office that helps fund these endeavors) but most are non-tenured track. Do folks feel better about the hires when the spouse because a legal writing professor or a staff member?

The two body problem is of course not unique to law school and something that most of my friends in academia (regardless of discipline) have had to face. There are many articles on this issue. Studies show that the most common outcome is that in a heterosexual couple, the woman usually ends up with the less prestigious job that has less security and a lower paycheck (e.g. legal writing instructor).

Posted by: young prof | Oct 7, 2011 8:22:13 AM

I am not sure what the last point is meant to convey. Would the woman
In that situation have had a better job if they had not been a spousal hire?

Posted by: EH | Oct 7, 2011 8:42:55 AM

Howard, I can see reasons why two-academic couples are more likely to come from privileged backgrounds. Academics in general are more likely to come from privileged backgrounds, and having a two-academic couple (or a double-profesional couple) is more likely to increase the chances that this is so, especially to the extent that they are more likely to have met at an elite college, law school, or law firm. But I agree that this is not a strong argument against hiring them, and that whoever you hire, single or married, is probably already likely to come from this background. I think the class backgrounds should be disaggregated from the couple question; we ought to care to some extent about the class background of who we hire and not just reward those who already have much, although we should still hire the best candidates all things considered. Frankly, although I think his work on class bias in legal education is very useful, I'm not sure Jeff got this one right. There is some kind of issue going on here, and it might be about the stratification of class in hiring, but I don't think it's strongly connected to the couple problem. A different question we can ask about couples hiring is simply whether standards are being bent or not, and whether a school in a given year wants to use up two lines or not. In any event, good post and interesting comments.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Oct 7, 2011 8:51:46 AM

TJ: I do not believe that spousal relationship is outcome-determinative, although it is a factor (a Bakke-plus, if you will). Category # 2 exists at a school, like mine, where hiring is substantially (although not entirely) curriculum-driven. So this category covers a spouse who is a great teacher and scholar but who does not teach in areas that we particularly need; such a person would be a great addition to the faculty and to the school, meets our ordinary standards, and enhances what we do in all ways but one (the ability to teach courses on the UCC). I see that as fundamentally different from # 3, where we are hiring someone who is not a scholar or teacher at the level we ordinarily expect of our hires. Number 3 is the one that causes the problems come tenure time, not # 2. I agree, by the way, # 2 disappears entirely at a school that can afford to hire less based on curricular fit.

LDR: I like the way you make that point.

YoungProf: Yes, I believe this is less of an issue if the spouse is teaching legal writing or is in a lecturer or staff position. And the reason, as with all things, likely goes to tenure and voting rights. As I said in the original post, my wife's experience may have been different if she had wanted a tenure-earning job as opposed to the equivalent of a clinical teaching job.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 7, 2011 9:38:36 AM

This point has been made, though not quite as directly as I'd like to make it: For schools located outside large metropolitan areas to take dual-academic career couples off the table and to remove from the dean the authority to try to seek employment for a professional trailing partner would be more than foolish. I am one of Jeff Harrison's colleagues, and I would not be here but for the law school's efforts to place my partner in an academic position in the university, as we both had competing offers from another school. As with Howard's partner, the university has found its decision to hire my partner quite satisfactory and rewarding.

The university is by far the largest employer in our small but charming college town. While I may well be "fungible" as merely one cog in a larger machine, at some point the fungibility of cogs argument begins to wear thin as many (if not most) of our hires in recent years have relied on at least some assistance in finding employment for their partners. If the dean didn't make such efforts, our pool of potential hires would be limited to single people, for whom we would have to compete with schools in large and mid-sized cities with larger populations of singles, and single career couples or those with partners whose occupations are fully movable -- a universe significantly greater than zero to be sure, but significantly smaller than if our pool included dual career couples. After all, as an employer we are ourselves quite fungible, and we would (and sometimes do) lose candidates to schools that might otherwise not be as attractive simply because of their locational advantage.

So while I agree that no one faculty member, least of all me, is irreplaceable, at some point a decision to diminish the pool of potential hires will harm the quality and morale of the faculty. As a result, one would have to ask whether Jeff's motivating concern -- which I share, though probably not to the same degree -- will be significantly advanced by removing or reducing the dean's and faculty's authority to consider partner accommodations of whatever sort. That would be difficult if not impossible to test, especially since the hiring process itself is already so skewed in the direction of hiring those whose lives began from within the high end of the income and wealth distributions. Let's be clear that that is the issue -- and the one that Jeff rightly brings to our attention -- not partner hires.

And, since hiring season is upon us, allow me also to clarify that UF has no policy approximating what Jeff's post seems to advocate, and I think I'm correct in saying that my sentiments regarding dual academic career couples -- we are not opposed to them, and we have made efforts to accommodate them in the past -- and administrative efforts to help trailing partners to find employment -- our dean regularly makes them -- describe our current practices. My sense is that such is true for the majority of law schools, which I applaud (though of course I would say that!).

Posted by: Mark Fenster | Oct 7, 2011 9:50:47 AM

Personally, I think Chicago started going downhill when they made Karl Llewellyn's wife a spousal hire.

(On a serious note, in my wife's non-law school department, there are three married couples, two of which were dual hires [not sure about the third]. In both cases, the trailing hire has been problematic.)

Posted by: Anon, good nurse! | Oct 7, 2011 10:10:25 AM

Howard:

Given any given distribution of class background among the hiring pool, a random selection is more likely to be at the median position than anywhere else.

However for a spousal hire, we are no longer selecting from the same distribution. We have an additional fact which changes the prior probability. Since that additional fact is also negatively skewed, the combined skewness of the composite distribution is higher than either one individually.

Certainly there will be plenty of people on the market from privileged backgrounds with non-academic professional spouses. But they are not terribly relevant to the analysis. The comparison is between a random member of an academic couple and a random academic of any kind.

Posted by: Brad | Oct 7, 2011 11:12:06 AM

"a heterosexual male faculty member is just as likely these days to have a wife with a career as the converse" -- I don't think that's true, at least for couples with children. And even if both have careers, it is much more common for the male faculty member to have the "leading" career. I am at a highly ranked law school and the number of male academics under the age of 45 with partners who work part time or not at all continues to amaze me. And I see it at other schools. (Someone must have some good numbers...) Joint hiring has allowed, in my view, really strong female academics to take better jobs than they could otherwise.

Posted by: anonymous | Oct 7, 2011 12:32:30 PM

"And even if both have careers, it is much more common for the male faculty member to have the 'leading' career."

I think this depends on the field. In the humanities, it is very, very common for the woman to have the "leading" career. Indeed, my spouse is in that field, and I know far more trailing husbands than trailing wives. It's really probably a function of whether the particular academic field is male- or female-dominated. So in an area that there are a disproportionate number of women (humanities for sure, probably education, probably art history, maybe music), I suspect you'll see a lot of trailing husbands. And vice versa in male-dominated fields.

Posted by: Two-body academic | Oct 7, 2011 12:40:55 PM

That must be right in some fields and at some universities. Though some figures I heard for my research university shows that many more men are hired each year into tenure track jobs, in pretty much every grouping of fields (the figures were not broken down by individual departments, but were broken down by humanities, social sciences, sciences, and professional schools). As a woman (with the "leading" career), the academy still has a very long ways to go toward gender equality.

Posted by: anonymous | Oct 7, 2011 12:57:55 PM

It is unrealistic to think that our society could go through so big a shift as the greater participation of women in the workforce in jobs traditionally reserved for men, and not have to change our ways of operation. What constitutes merit, always a loaded topic, and what institutions have to do to recruit, will be transformed. In the old days, departments did not have to think about this because the professor's "wife" did not likely have a career, or job, that could not be replicated in the new place. Understandings have to change. Some cherished ideas will fall by the wayside, and other benefits will arise.

Posted by: anonymous | Oct 7, 2011 3:32:30 PM

Howard, this point is probably going to start drifting off topic, but the Bakke-plus is itself non-logical. The spouse hired to teach a non-curricular need does not "meet[ your] ordinary standards". They fail one of those standards -- curricular fit. And for any other candidate that would be a super-duper major thing, since we tell candidates at the FAR that curricular fit is the #1 consideration for most schools. So you are in fact waiving a huge requirement. And that is a major cost to the school, since it now must displace a candidate who would have made for a good curricular fit, a difference that the school ordinarily regards as highly material (since apparently that is the #1 consideration in ordinary hiring).

We can debate whether getting the "star" spouse is worth taking the trailing spouse for the ride. And not all trailing spouses are equal -- some are really far below what otherwise would have been hired (WOWHBH), and others are only a little bit below WOWHBH. But they are all below WOWHBH. That difference is the cost of the two-couple hire. Pretending that there is no cost because the trailing spouse is "qualified" is the rhetorical illusion of your #2 that irks me whenever I see it.

Posted by: TJ | Oct 7, 2011 3:47:08 PM

Brad: "The comparison is between a random member of an academic couple and a random academic of any kind." Yes, that is the comparison. But I don't see why the former (call him X) is more likely to be from a more privileged background than the latter (call him Y). If many/most academics come from privileged backgrounds (take that as true for arguments sake), then chances are both X and Y are from privileged backgrounds. The only difference between them is that X happens to have married another academic (likely someone he met in grad school) and Y doesn't.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 7, 2011 4:09:07 PM

Whether the "star" spouse is worth it is the question, right? It is not a side issue at all. If they are worth it, hiring the trailing spouse is part of the recruitment package. Included within the "standard" may be that you want the hire to comfortable enough in the position to give 100 percent to the job. Failing to hire the trailing spouse could jeopardize that which may be as important a "standard" as announcing the curricular fit is the "number one" consideration. Announce something else. Make it second to hiring people who will be in the position to bring the full array of their talents and attention to the job. Anyway, the concept of "target of opportunity" hires already puts the lie to the idea that curricular fit is the only things that schools consider when deciding how to constitute their faculties.

Posted by: anonymous | Oct 7, 2011 4:16:26 PM

I don't know that I can explain it much better without getting heavily into math.

Here's an attempt though:

Take a look at this picture:
http://homework.uoregon.edu/pub/class/355/skew2.gif

Imagine that it is a histogram of job applicants by class background.

Now let's say you have two slots that can either be picked independently from the distribution or can be selected such that both are at the same spot on the x axis.

Which method has a higher probability of selecting at least one applicant from the left side of the median?

Posted by: Brad | Oct 7, 2011 4:41:40 PM

TJ's comments and some of the other comments seem to presuppose what is often not the case: that there is someone who would have been hired had it not been for the "trailing spouse."

Often, deans and other higher-ups essentially create positions/lines that would not otherwise have existed. So there is no person "who otherwise would have been hired (WOWHBH)." This is perhaps particularly the case with non-law academic departments, where one needn't even think that, say, you are taking away a future possible line. Rather, it might be that the History department gets a line the money for which would have otherwise gone to building the new arts center, or whatever. It seems much harder to say that this is generally a bad thing, particularly if the issue is just curricular fit, and not overall quality.

Posted by: Another Anon | Oct 7, 2011 4:54:54 PM

Another anon: Deans cannot create positions out of thin air. The line would either have been used to hire another professor, or at a minimum used for something else (like scholarships for students). Whatever the higher utility use of the resources devoted to the trailing hire would have been, the opportunity cost becomes the downside of the nepotism.

Posted by: TJ | Oct 7, 2011 5:39:03 PM

You assume that the other thing the dean could be doing with the resources would inevitably be a "higher utility". That's a value judgment you are making because you are, evidently, opposed to the concept of hiring trailing spouses. People who are not opposed to that would value it differently. This is a subjective judgment based on each individual context.

Posted by: anonymous | Oct 7, 2011 5:57:57 PM

anonymous, it is higher utility based on what the school would otherwise prefer to do. It is not my value judgement.

Posted by: TJ | Oct 7, 2011 6:47:49 PM

How do you we know what the school would prefer to do beyond what their actions suggest? At one point they may say curricular needs are the most important thing, but then when the situation changes-- they want to hire a particular person who has a spouse who needs employment-- their preference changes. There is no "otherwise prefer to do" that remains constant throughout space and time.

Posted by: anonymous | Oct 7, 2011 7:08:10 PM

anonymous, Howard's category #2 makes it explicit that the trailing spouse "isn't needed" and would otherwise not be hired. If you think that this is a meaningless concept (i.e. we cannot know whether, but for the star spouse, the school would otherwise prefer to independently hire the trailing spouse or use the resources for some other purpose), then your problem is with Howard's initial definition of the categories, not me.

Posted by: TJ | Oct 7, 2011 9:01:04 PM

I should add also that asking the "otherwise prefer to do" question is ubiquitous throughout employment law. For example, if a professor sues a law school for unlawfully removing his tenure and firing him because of his speech, the law school always has the defense that it would have fired him anyway without the speech. That defense always involves asking whether the school would have "otherwise preferred" to fire the professor and use the resources on some other endeavor.

More broadly, asking what would happen "but for" a particular fact or situation is ubiquitous throughout all of law, most prominently in tort law and factual causation. So if you think that that asking what people would otherwise do in a hypothetical "but for" world is meaningless, then you are questioning our entire legal system.

Posted by: TJ | Oct 7, 2011 9:13:21 PM

I was responding to your answer to "another anon" in which you said that that the dean can't create positions out of thin air, that the "line would either have been used to hire another professor, or at a minimum used for something else (like scholarships for students)." and your next quote suggesting that these were items of higher utility-- and that judgment was being made "based upon what the school would otherwise prefer to do."

Posted by: anonymous | Oct 7, 2011 9:58:07 PM

Well, yes, because "another anon" was responding to my response to Howard. You need to read the entire comment thread.

Posted by: TJ | Oct 7, 2011 10:35:51 PM

We're not going o get anywhere with this. Another wrinkle was introduced into the thread, and i was responding to that. Not needing the person, category two, does not go to whether the dean would otherwise be giving a student a scholarship.

Posted by: anonymous | Oct 7, 2011 11:18:20 PM

As everyone who knows my spouse knows, I benefitted hugely from spousal-hiring cronyism -- "you want her, you're stuck with me!" -- and so I'm all for it.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Oct 9, 2011 7:56:39 PM

"That must be right in some fields and at some universities. Though some figures I heard for my research university shows that many more men are hired each year into tenure track jobs, in pretty much every grouping of fields (the figures were not broken down by individual departments, but were broken down by humanities, social sciences, sciences, and professional schools)."

The gist of this thread came up at a post-lecture dinner on Friday. There were seven of us there. Three were "leading" female academics with "trailing" husbands. One was a wife in a two-city marriage (not sure if they are formally separated or just living apart). Two were single gay male academics. One was a non-academic "trailing" husband. Most thought the idea that the leading-trailing phenomenon was primarily limited to the husband-wife context was a bit funny.

Posted by: Anecdata | Oct 9, 2011 11:15:12 PM

Responding to TJ's comment that deans can't create lines out of thin air: Depends on the school. Many big universities have specific offices with money (usually via the provost) that pay for those positions and create the lines. Sometimes it means that the trailing spouse is "free" to the department (at least for a few years). I think this could change the analysis in some of your discussions. One school I interviewed (I think it was UC Irvine) with even gave me a brochure about their spousal hiring policy.

Posted by: young prof | Oct 10, 2011 9:24:09 AM

young prof, then we just go up one level. So the spouse is "free" to the law school, but it is a cost to the university. So allow me to shift the statement into the passive voice: "Lines cannot be created out of thin air."

Posted by: TJ | Oct 10, 2011 5:44:51 PM

TJ, why do you assume that there is "higher utility based on what the school would otherwise prefer to do" to not hiring the "trailing spouse."

Schematically, let's say these are the University's (or Law School's) options:

(1) Hire Angela (no trailing spouse) and spend X-amount on _____.
(2) Hire Bella and Chris (a trailing spouse who costs exactly X-amount).

There are many scenarios in which (2) would be superior to (1). Maybe Bella is better than Angela and Chris is more valuable than whatever _____ is. Or maybe Bella is the same as Angela and Chris is more valuable than whatever _____ is.

There's just no reason to think that generally (1) will be better than (2). What would that even mean?

Posted by: Another Anon | Oct 10, 2011 5:59:42 PM

another anon: you are misunderstanding my point. Of course 2 can be better than 1, that is why the school would consent to the package deal. The question is whether hiring Chris imposes any cost to the school. Howard's definition -- that Chris is "qualified" -- creates an illusion that there is no cost. Or in other words, Howard defines category #2 in a way that suggests these two choices are equal:

1. Hire Bella and spend X amount on __.
2. Hire Bella and Chris (a trailing spouse who costs exactly X amount).

My point is that, if the comparison is as my example defines it, then 2 is less good than 1. And in this way Chris imposes a cost. Of course, if Bella is such a star that hiring Bella and Chris is better than hiring Angela and spending X amount on something else, it would be good for the school to take the package. But it is dishonest to pretend that Chris imposes no cost under the rhetoric of saying he is "qualified."

Posted by: TJ | Oct 10, 2011 7:37:16 PM

putting aside the question of spending X amount of something other than a faculty position (which admittedly is an important consideration), the practical effect, in most instances, of hiring a spouse is that, by virtue of having one more person on the faculty, the school will be looking to fill one fewer positions, this year or in the future, than it otherwise would. Unless the spouse is in category 1, then the practical effect of the decision is that some current or future applicant will fail to be hired by virtue of not being the spouse of a faculty member. At a minimum, the school should acknowledge that the real cost of hiring the first member of the couple is double, and should ask what else they can get for that cost -- such as two people, perhaps neither of whom is as stellar as the lost hire, but who, when taken together, might be preferable to a stellar faculty member and a waste of space whose presence impedes the hiring of someone else.

Posted by: ppaul | Oct 10, 2011 7:44:29 PM

Let me put this issue perhaps more cleanly than it has been, since it has appeared in drips and drabs over the entire comment thread. Howard divides hiring decisions into three categories:

1. A and B are both independently needed, and both would be hired even if they were not married.
2. C is a star and would be hired. D would not be hired but is still somehow "qualified." Because C is a star, the school hires both C and D.
3. E is a star. F is worthless and unqualified. Because E is a star, the school hires both E and F.

Howard says #2 is fine but #3 is bad. My point is that there is no logical distinction between #2 and #3. In both cases the school necessarily compromises on the trailing spouse in order to get the star spouse. In #3 the cost is greater (because the trailing spouse is more worthless), but the difference is one of degree and not kind. If one finds #3 objectionable as a category (and not merely as a more egregious version of #2), then one should logically object to #2 as well. If one finds #2 categorically OK--as Howard does--then one cannot categorically object to #3 in my view. To be logically consistent, one must either support both, condemn both, or say that both categories will depend on individual circumstances. Howard's attempt to create opposite categorical rules between them is attempting a rhetorical distinction that I find unconvincing.

I am not saying that a school cannot rationally choose to implement couple hiring. I am saying that a school cannot pretend there is some distinction between #2 and #3. And this has real impact, because the first thing that happens with a #2/#3 type of hire is that nobody can say it out loud -- calling someone a "trailing spouse" who got hired through nepotism is considered an egregious insult, especially when it is true.

Posted by: TJ | Oct 10, 2011 7:57:55 PM

ppaul -- supposing that the spousal hire is a "waste of space" is arguing against a straw man.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Oct 11, 2011 12:53:42 AM

I have some comments on the post and the comments. The can be found over on the class bias blog.

Posted by: Jeff Harrison | Oct 11, 2011 1:38:25 AM

I am part of an academic couple. My husband landed his first tenure track position this fall. I work in advising. I wasn't given the job. I had to interview like anyone else. I was rejected for one advising position on campus but was offered another one. This is based on my experience as I have over 10 years experience working in higher edu ( and I have won awards on a national level for my career field). I was able to network more due to my husband's position but again I had to interview like everyone else ( that's what the dean said). I am so thankful we both have positions in this economy. Also, I am a minority where he is not but we are both from working class backgrounds and "first generation college students."

Posted by: prof wife | Dec 1, 2011 5:00:43 PM

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