Hiring Couples (guest post by Felicia Nimue Ackerman)

The following is a guest post* by Felicia Nimue Ackerman, professor of philosophy at Brown University, on the practice of preferential spousal hiring. As with a previous guest post of hers, this one includes a poem and an essay, both of which were previously published in The Providence Journal (poem on July 27, 2014, essay on May 27, 2008).

NOTE: In comments on this post, mentions of or allusions to identifiable members of philosopher-couples in academic philosophy will not be allowed, except by the members themselves (unless they themselves invite such discussion by others). See the comments policy for more information about commenting here.



Proposal to Professor Superstar
by Felicia Nimue Ackerman

Come marry me! Come be my love
(Or fake it that you love me).
The job I crave is at your school,
But others rank above me.

The old boy system didn’t die.
It took a new direction.
Today the favored form of pull
Is marital connection.

To hold you fast when we’re a pair,
They’ll surely want to hire me.
When I get tenure, we can split —
There’s no way they can fire me.

♥ ♡ ♥

Hiring Couples — Love in the Groves of Academe
by Felicia Nimue Ackerman

Commencement is upon us, but many new Ph.D.s fear it will mark the end rather than the start of their academic careers. Commencement speakers, with their obligatory bland inspirationalism, can scarcely offer hard-headed advice for navigating a difficult academic job market. So I will. Improve your job prospects by making a strategic match—not an academic match, but a romantic one.

When I was a college student in the 1960s, married couples were even rarer on faculties than registered Republicans. Anti-nepotism rules were prevalent, rationalized in part by fear of cronyism, although such fear did not keep faculty searches from relying on old-boy networks. Nowadays, colleges and universities advertise jobs and conduct open searches. Hiring on “pull” is in disrepute, with one exception. Far from barring married couples, many schools pride themselves on offering jobs to the spouses or romantic partners of strong candidates. Sometimes the partners get favored for existing positions. Sometimes jobs get created specifically for them, deflecting funds that could be used elsewhere.

The policy seems paradoxical. The traditional old-boy system, for all its flaws, had a rationale involving merit. Professors trusted their fellow old boys to use academic merit as a basis for job recommendations. No one chooses a romantic partner on academic merit. Why should romantic connection be the one sort of pull that political correctness allows and even encourages as a basis for hiring? Why shouldn’t such connections be irrelevant?

Here are some answers I have encountered.

“Hiring couples benefits women, who are still underrepresented on faculties.” But favoring couples actually benefits women — and men — who are part of academic couples and harms those who are not. It is ironic that favoring wives of powerful men (one common form of couple hiring) has come to count as a progressive, feminist move.

“Couples face hardship when their jobs make them live in different cities.” Couples are scarcely the only people who face hardship in academia. The job market in many disciplines is so tight that when an applicant loses out to someone whose “credentials” include a sought-after partner, the loser often has to settle for a much lesser teaching job, if any. Why should professional opportunities for single people be sacrificed so that academic couples can live together without making professional sacrifices?

“When married couples get job offers only in different cities and reject a commuter marriage, it is generally the woman whose career suffers.”

This claim invites two questions. First, is there hard evidence for it? Second, when a woman gives her husband’s career priority over her own, what is the reason? Perhaps she genuinely agrees with this priority. Perhaps she knuckles under to a domineering husband. How could either possibility justify handicapping single job seekers?

“Some couples collaborate on research, giving legitimate professional grounds for hiring them as a team.” So do some people with no romantic connection. Appointment of faculty who collaborate on research should be based on intellectual, not romantic, relationships.

“Hiring an unimpressive partner in order to attract a superstar can, on balance, benefit a school academically.” So can firing someone to prevent his prestigious enemy from leaving. Unfairness in hiring and firing, like all unethical behavior, sometimes has practical benefit. So what else is new?

Back to the hard-headed advice: Maybe new Ph.D.s should try some unethical behavior of their own—the academic equivalent of “green-card” marriages, undertaken solely for professional reasons and dissolved soon after both partners get tenure. What will a school do then—fire them?

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