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Thursday, May 09, 2013

Spousal Hiring, Ethics, and the Theory of the Family

Some of my work intersects with family law, although I've yet to fully step into the curricular powder room. After hearing a wonderful presentation about her upcoming book on women in academia by one of my Radcliffe Institute Co-Fellows, I have been thinking more about the ethics of spousal hiring in academi [full disclosure: I am unmarried myself]. As part of her interview with several university presidents and academics, apparently spousal hiring is often credited with helping to improve the number of women on faculties and there is also some data suggesting that in universities with spousal hiring the "index spouse" if you will (the one the university has gone after) performs better than where there is no such policy. I am very interested in how the laudable goals of accomodation and family support intersect with general priors against nepotism.

For today's post, though, I wanted to examine the notion that spousal hiring rules or tendencies may reflect a certain theory of the family. To see this, imagine the following hypotheticals.

1. Brenda and Allen are married. Brenda is hired to teach physics, and the university finds a position for her husband Alan in its law school clinic.

2. Carl and Dan are same-sex partners in a state without legalized gay marriage. Dan is hired to teach physics, and the university finds a position for Carl in its law school clinic.

3. Evelyn is the daughter of Frank. Evelyn is hired to teach physics, and the university finds a position for her father Frank in its law school clinic.

4 Garret is the father of Jordi and a senior scholar in the field. Garret is hired to teach physics, and the university finds a position for Jordi in its law school clinic.

5. Hector and Ingrid are best friends and have been for life. Ingrid is hired to teach physics, and the university finds a position for Hector  in its law school clinic.

So each of these is a potential family relation. My sense is that many schools would do or have done hiring in case 1, some would do it in case 2, but none would do it in case 3 through 5.  3 and 4 at least are what average people would call family relationships, so this is interesting.

By making a cut (whether between 1 and the rest or 1 and 2 and the rest) universities are essentially endorsing once conception of the family over others. I want to suggest this is contested terrain, and we may need a justification for why they do so.

One answer would be that everyone asks for 1, and no one asks for 4 or 5. That kind of conventional answer, though, might suggest no one asks for the others because universities have never offered them. A more essentialist answer is that 1 is endorsed because there is a particular value that familial hiring is meant to secure relating to child rearing. That would raise the question of why universities should support that particular goal -- after all closeness and ability to care for an aging parent is also important -- whether some of these other family structures might also facilitate that goal (case number 3 in particular -- and what to do about relationship hiring that has no child rearing involved (including possibly case number 2). Finally, one might suggest that universities are committed to romantic love, or at least believe potential people they might hire care more about romantic love, than parental love or friendship. Again, though, it seems to me highly contestable as to what relationships people value more, very culturally contingent, and also I wonder what it is about the Telos (if I can be Aristotelian for a moment) about the university that connects it to romantic love?

What do people thing about these cases?

Posted by Ivan Cohen on May 9, 2013 at 11:51 AM in Employment and Labor Law, Gender, Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink


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this thread reminds me of Ethan's work on friendship, and how do we draw the lines between our rules about romantic versus platonic relations

Posted by: orly lobel | May 10, 2013 1:13:27 AM

(1) My answer is mostly the same as Orin, except that I think the Dean would have an additional problem. If the Index professor really can make the threat credible, then from a static perspective the Dean should go for it. But the Dean also needs to keep in mind how it looks to the outside world and in the future--he needs to be able to credibly signal that this is a one-off for an especially credible threat and not every star professor can suddenly start inventing needs for their parents or adult children. And I'm not sure how a Dean can credibly communicate that sufficiently to prevent a bunch of "me too" threats.
(2) I'm not sure how to answer your question, because you seem to be asking a normative "should" and my point was purely descriptive. I presume everyone, including unmarried faculty, already tries to maximize their own compensation (so if your "should" is descriptive I would say that an additional request is predicted to be futile). Whether the distribution is equitable or not is something I haven't given much thought to.
(3) I don't think the corporate analogy works. Your typical middle-manager hire at a corporation does not receive the individualized consideration that a faculty hire goes through. And that matters because a lot of this has to do with transaction and signaling costs.

Posted by: TJ | May 10, 2013 12:18:52 AM

I think the hiring of children of faculty members in other departments (#3) certainly occurs, but not as part of a package relation deal. Generally, chldren that are old enough to work do not move with their parents, so it becomes irrelevant as part of a relocation package. However, when Junior becomes of age and needs a job, the request may come from a valued faculty member.

Posted by: JJJJ | May 9, 2013 5:41:44 PM

Glenn -- I suspect your #2 already happens, as faculty/employees with co-location problems will often turn down higher paid gigs for jobs where spouses can be placed. And a threat to leave unless the home institution provides a raise from someone with colocation problems due to an outside offer will seem less credible.

To the extent that a lack of interest in co-location benefits is not rewarded with higher compensation, it is likely because a dean or school may have some bank of favors that can't be turned into cash but can be offered in the form of alternative compensation. For instance, a Dean may be able to get another part of a school or a private employer to look at a spouse as a hire, but she will not necessarily be able to get that other unit/private employer to pony up hard cash. The question is whether there are non-cash side benefits that schools can offer to sought-after candidates without colocation problems.

Posted by: D.Schleicher | May 9, 2013 5:23:05 PM

(1) I haven't heard of this happening, but if a candidate that the school really really wanted had that particular condition, I suspect Deans would go for it just as they would a spousal hire.
(2) Do you mean "should" in the sense of "worth a try to get more $$"? Or "should" as in the sense of "in a fair and equitable world, this would happen"?
(3) I'm not familiar enough with the rules in corporate America to say.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | May 9, 2013 4:31:32 PM

I have heard (secondhand, not at my institution, take it for what it's worth) of a case in which a school at least seriously explored the possibility of making an accommodation even for #6 (added by Toby above -- a 'spousal' position for a divorced spouse) in order to induce a desired faculty member to move across the country. In that case, everybody agrees that there is no "intact romantic family," but because the desired faculty member credibly claimed that a prerequisite to a move was for ex & offspring to move also, it made sense for the school to at least consider whether they had / could create a relevant job opening for the ex.

Your question (3) is a fascinating one that deserves some serious thought. Pulling on this thread will probably entangle you in some complex questions of cultural difference as between Fortune 500 companies and university faculties. But one starting point would be to ask: what proportion of Fortune 500 executives have spouses who either do not work or are marginal workers? I suspect that two-earner couples are more common in the university context, for a variety of reasons. I also think one of the drivers of spousal/partner hiring norms in the university context is that some people are pretty specialized: it's not uncommon that a liberal arts college surrounded by miles of cornfields is going to have to decide whether they would like to hire a couple consisting of, say, an African linguist and a historian of China. If the college decides they want one and not the other, that's fine, but in that case the couple is simply not going to show up in the fall. This doesn't apply as much to colleges in, say, Boston. But a lot of colleges in the U.S. are considerably further out of the way, and a lot of academics are considerably more narrowly specialized than most Fortune 500 employees. Either of those factors could make a big difference.

Posted by: Joey | May 9, 2013 4:04:45 PM

Glenn with regard to (1), my intuition tells me that it might matter what kind of job the Index Professor was seeking for his or her parent. Would it be a temporary, two-year contract or a tenured or long-term contract and therefore more permanent kind of position?

I could certainly imagine a dean going out of his or her way to help out the professor's parent if the job was temporary. Notice, however, that the scenario you posit is one that is marked by a kind of exigency. One parent is ailing and the family is needed to take care of that parent. Granted, that situation may last for a period of years, but eventually, it will (sadly) end. And I assume that when the exigency passes, the star professor's dean might not be as eager to continue the employment for the working parent, depending on how well the parent has performed his or her job. This strikes me as different from the spousal hire scenario. There is no temporary quality to the need to have the spouse accompany his or her partner. The assumption is that s/he will be there indefinitely.

Posted by: Miriam Baer | May 9, 2013 3:57:14 PM

Thanks to all of you for the great comments. I am intrigued that all of you have jumped to a kind of "commodified family" by which I mean the entire value of spousal hiring is as a bargaining chip, a form of non-cash compensation. Contrast this with the more "endorsement" view I alluded to initially where pursuing spousal hiring and intact romantic families is thought of as a good in itself and not merely transactional. If I've got you right, three questions I am curious for your thoughts on:
(1) Say at the entry or lateral stage it was really important to me to get a job for a parent (given that my parents are Canadian the idea is actually not that far-fetched in my actual job), perhaps the other parent is in assisted living and it is important for us all to be close by to share the load. Do you think deans or hiring committees or whomever would accede to such a request if made with the same credible threat force you posit relating to spousal hire? My own prior is that most deans would look at me like I was crazy but perhaps that is wrong.
(2) Should individuals without these kinds of demands on their dean be asking for more compensation or the like? I've wondered the same thing regarding schools that offer generous child care or educational benefits, whether the childless faculty members should demand or be given a make-up form of compensation?
(3) Should the fact that this is conceptualized as a kind of in-kind compensation alter our view about the ethics of this from an anti-nepotism point of view? So here I am very interested in why corporate America has rules against some of the same practices that are considered very culturally acceptable in law faculties. After all, many fortune 500 companies are also located in out of the way locations where finding a job for the other spouse is hard.

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | May 9, 2013 3:25:50 PM

I mostly agree with TJ: Spousal hiring practices reflect what tends to attract and retain desirable faculty members, not theories of the family. People want to live with their life partners, for obvious reasons, and a school that employs both partners at the same time makes the position attractive to accept and easy to maintain over time. Some evidence of this is found in the diversity of practices based on geographic location: By and large, the schools that are areas with worse employment prospects outside the university do more spousal hiring than schools in areas with better employment prospects outside the university.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | May 9, 2013 2:42:53 PM

I was going to say something similar to (at least part of) what TJ says, though in a slightly different way. Most people think it's an important part of a relationship to be able to live with an intimate partner if at all possible. At least in the US (and most western countries, I'd think), people don't think it's as important a part of the parent/child relationship in the case of adult children. And, in the case of friends, it's very nice to live close to one's friends, but still possible to have a rewarding friendship from afar in a way that it's usually not for intimate partners. These facts provide easy default rules. If the other cases really need the benefit, it can probably be shown in some way. Having such a system helps keep abuse to a minimum. Is this "endorsing a contentious conception of the family"? Maybe, to a degree, but not in a way that seems seriously problematic to me, if so.

Posted by: Matt | May 9, 2013 2:36:43 PM

Why isn't a more straightforward descriptive explanation that universities are responding to economic signals and credibility? That is, I know a lot more people who are going to insist on being in the same city as their spouse or same sex partner--and who really will turn down a job if push came to shove over the issue--than people who have the same commitment to being in the same city as their adult child or parent. Of course, this is not unfailingly true in either direction--some spouses are willing to live separately, and some parents, children, and close friends really will insist on being in close proximity to each other. But a university doing hiring cannot easily sort: if a university says it will hire children/parents/friends if a star professor really needs that person close by, then every star professor will suddenly find many seemingly dire needs for his children, parents, and close friends. The only way to test the credibility of the commitment is to refuse (at which point the star professor, to maintain future credibility with other professors, may need to move just for that sake alone). In short, the university must rely on imperfect generalizations about the credibility of commitments. And I don't see why rational economics, rather than some kind of ideological commitment to certain conceptions of family, cannot explain university actions here.

Two preemptive replies. (1) Of course, at some level, the underlying generalization is due to cultural conceptions of family--there is a social expectation that spouses live together but not a social expectation that parents and adult children do. But my point is that the university doesn't have to be "endorsing" the conception as much as simply reacting to it. (2) My suggestion doesn't refute the possibility that universities also do what they do because they really are endorsing a conception of family and when people in to be in physical proximity. But my point is only your cited evidence doesn't prove it.

Posted by: TJ | May 9, 2013 12:52:29 PM

I can't comment on the value of romantic love, but it occurs to me that "spousal" hiring keeps the potential "excess" hiring down to just one additional person (assuming the law permits marriage to only one person). So in cases 1 and 2, the university need only hire 1 additional person. Once you expand the familial relation to one's parent, the potential excess hiring at least doubles (why hire just my dad when you can also hire mom? and what about my step-mom?), and it grows even more when you expand it to children, relatives outside the nuclear family, and best friends. A single index candidate might bring 4-5 additional hires with her. This drives up transaction costs and makes comparison of candidates far more difficult.

Of course, a good university hiring committee/dean ought not to hand out so many jobs that it destroys the index candidate's added value, but framing effects and other biases can cause administrators to make a lot of bad decisions. In theory, Dean X would never offer Professor Y positions for all of his friends and family members, but in the heat of the moment, when it appears that Dean X is about to lose Professor Y to School Z, Dean X might make a series of bad decisions. Accordingly, the limitation of preferential hiring to spouses limits bad hiring fueled by loss aversion. [Of course, Dean X might make all sorts of other bad decisions, like overpaying Professor Y or permitting Professor Y to barely teach any classes, etc].

Incidentally, were universities to ever adopt the type of hiring delineated in rules 3-5, I can imagine some cranky hiring committee member mumbling to herself, "Oh good. Candidate X is an unmarried orphan with no friends. Let's interview him."

Posted by: Miriam Baer | May 9, 2013 12:46:57 PM

In 6, above, assume Ken and Laura are both scholars. But then consider 6A, where Laura has remarried to Mike, and Laura is not a scholar but Ken and Mike are.

Posted by: Toby | May 9, 2013 12:24:41 PM

Here's another:

6. Ken and Laura are amicably divorced and trying to raise their three children (ages 4, 8, and 12) together in their separate houses in the same general area.

Posted by: Toby | May 9, 2013 12:22:07 PM

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