Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Partner hiring, qu'est-ce que c'est?

Ever since this post, I've been planning on outlining what commenter TG referred to as "the doctrine and discipline of partner hiring." But though you'd think that after the successful resolution of my own two-body problem I'd have lots to say on the subject, the reality is that there's no single thing that we mean when we talk about partner hiring.

Consider, for example, these different scenarios:

One partner, upon being offered an entry-level tenure-track job, negotiates a non-tenure track job for the other

Someone already in a TT job negotiates a non-TT job for his or her partner

One partner is already in a TT job and the department creates a TT line for his or her partner

Two partners apply and get hired for two TT jobs in the same department at the same time

Two partners get recruited and hired for two TT jobs together

One partner, upon being recruited for a senior position, is offered a second TT position for his or her partner.

One partner, already in a TT job, gets an outside offer, and makes a TT job for his or her partner a condition of staying

One partner is already in a TT job, the department runs a search for a TT position in the other partner's field, and that partner gets hired after a national search

One partner is already in a TT job, the department has an opening in the other partner's field, and hires the other partner without a national search

All of those are situations that get described as "partner hiring," but they're quite different. Generally, when I talk about partner hiring, I mean situations where each partner ends up in a tenure-line job at the same institution--both because I presume that, all other things being equal, most couples would prefer that scenario, and because it's the filling or creating of TT lines that causes the most trouble and potential conflict.

However, even with that limitation, there are still so many variables that I'm not sure it's even possible to talk about "being in favor of" or "being opposed to" partner hiring in general.

Since I'm part of an academic couple and I know many others, I've always previously said that I support partner hiring. But when I say that, I'm taking as a given that both partners are accomplished and desirable hires, and more than competitive within the pool of other applicants (or relative to other recent hires); I'm also assuming that no one is forcing anything on a hiring department--that, if there wasn't a national search, there was at least a consensus that hiring the partner was a smart pick-up. That reflects the scenarios I know best: situations where both partners are on the tenure track at peer institutions, producing work basically equivalent in quantity and quality, but for whom finding jobs at the same place remains elusive.

Those who dislike the idea of partner hires often have a very different scenario in mind, sometimes equally born of unfortunate personal experience: a less-qualified partner gets hired, without full departmental consultation, sometimes as the result of one or two people throwing their weight around, and sometimes in ways that reinforce traditional power structures (senior man gets his 25-year-old girlfriend hired; straight people get privileged over queers; chair or dean makes an executive decision).

I'd venture to say that, phrased that way, almost of us are in favor of a good opportunity hire who's committed to the institution because it's where his or her partner works and against an underqualified hire that's forced upon a department--and if those distinctions are more than matters of perception, they come down partly to institutional type and culture. A less-healthy institution is more likely to do partner hiring badly (because the culture is an imperial one, or where certain kinds of people get valued more than others), and a more healthy one is more likely to do it well or at least in ways that don't piss other faculty off.

If I could propose a few general rules, though, these would be they:

1. Any secondarily-hired partner should be competitive within the department's usual pool of applicants. It's foolish to say that he or she must be the most qualified person (since the idea that one can rank candidates in some absolute and objective way is usually a fiction), but he or she should do more than meet minima.

2. The decision to hire should be made in a way that has widespread departmental support, whatever that might mean in a given context.

3. If hiring a partner means creating a new line, it shouldn't compromise existing hiring goals (e.g., hiring another Americanist shouldn't mean foregoing the medievalist a department has been requesting for three years)

4. No preference should be given to straight couples over gay ones

5. After hiring, the partners are expected to function as independent agents, getting no preferential treatment and each doing his or her fair share of service. (The exception would be cases where two partners are hired to share one line.)

None of this, however, makes actually attaining a partner hire any easier, and it's harder the earlier one is in one's career and the less leverage one has--I know virtually no one, for example, who upon being offered an entry-level tenure-track job was able to negotiate a second TT job for his or her partner. And none of this protects a department against disaster scenarios like a messy divorce.

The real problem, for everyone, is that partner hiring is no one thing, and it's hard to make a general rule or take other people's experiences as either a model or a warning.


Readers, what would you add to my list? Or do you have any advice either for those trying to solve the two-body problem or departments considering helping them?


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

We have a situation at HU where a prof in a different liberal arts department got hired TT and his wife got hired adjunct. The couple seemed okay with that, but then, I've gotten to know the adjunct, and it's clear that she's not very qualified. The TT guy is also a little wet behind the ears. Both of them are SUPER conservative, and even though the admins are conservative, the faculty isn't. So it's a little awkward. I know that the adjunct is unhappy. I would be too if I were her. I think that the best scenario is when both people are equals -- on the TT, that is -- because it makes for less awkwardness among the faculty, and I imagine, less awkwardness in the relationship. I feel bad for these people, but the adjunct is not very good (students complain about her, unsolicited), so it's unlikely she'll ever be hired TT.

In my department, we also had a spouse (well, fiancee) hire this year. She'll start in the fall, actually. I like her a lot, but she, too, is completely unqualified for this job. Doesn't have a single word of her dissertation written, for instance, and has never taught before. But my chair wanted to keep the man part of this relationship at our school, so he pretty much ran a sham search and only interviewed one person. I raised some concerns about this, and my chair said, "Yeah, but I really want to keep the guy, and if I don't hire the woman, then he's going to leave ASAP." To me, that was shady on my chair's part, and also made me worry that we're setting up this ABD woman for failure. Part of the conditions of her employment are that if she doesn't write her dissertation and defend by the end of her first school year, then she's fired. I can't imagine writing my diss during my first year of a 4/4 teaching load, especially if I were totally inexperienced. That, to me, is a really bad situation.

So at HU, we have two very unequal situations going on. But I think your scenario is really ideal -- both of you have similar positions, and you're clearly doing a lot of great work in research, etc. So even if you knew no one at your new school, you would have been among the top-notch scholars in the candidate list. That's the best situation by far, I think, and I would happily, gleefully, support a spousal hire like that. When there's inequality among the two people, I think that's when people get truly uncomfortable.

Susan said...

Our partner hire situations are all with different fields - some have workedvregularly some not. (The guy whose wife we wanted, who told two assistant profs that he had the job already - not.) our rule is that we don't even Hinkle about the person if we don't ink they fit and are qualified. Then we do a real interview.

@Fie, what is too bad about the situation you describe is not only that women are set up for failure, but it will "prove" women can't do the job. And if it doesn't work for the women, the men probably won't stay. Though the one who has to finish her diss may in fact do so: committees approve all sorts of unfinished work when a job is on the line.

Susan said...

(And apologies for the way autocorrect went crazy there. Hinkle is "think"! )
These do work differently when the partner is not in the same field as the initial hire. Even in a unit that runs multiple majors, there is a real sense that you have the right to say no. But our personnel process is such that it's hard to get someone unqualified through.

My motto is that you try to make it work, but you can't always...

Flavia said...


Yes, I think an adjunct is a different situation--for one thing, it's much easier to come up with a non-TT line.

As for the woman in your department (who I think you said is a VAP but will be TT if she finishes?), it illustrates my point that the problems caused by partner hiring are very often about pre-existing problems in a department: a high-handed or sexist chair makes partner hires in high-handed or sexist ways, just as those people who worry about partners creating a faction or voting bloc or whatever if they're hired are usually in departments where that already happens or is a real danger.


I understood! I'm at a conference and subject to the tyranny of autocorrect myself.

It's really nice when departments can work together to make a (qualified!) partner hire happen. I know some institutions that have a history of being helpful in that regard, and some that don't. I know of one school where History is still pissed at English for not working with them to hire a couple and lost the historian to a slightly less prestigious institution closer to where his wife had a MORE prestigious job offer in hand.

dWj said...

I don't know what the statistics on this are in the twenty-first century, but the two trailing-spouse situations I'm closest to involved two women (one the advisor of the other) bringing along husbands, the junior one to an adjunct position in her department. In the senior case, the husband was in a different department, and the woman's department paid (as in actual budgetary dollars) the man's department for hiring him.

When it's one department making both hires, taking a superstar along with an applicant who wouldn't be on the short-list but would otherwise likely be at an institution one tier less prestigious seems like a reasonable decision. The inter-departmental pecuniary transfer seems slightly more fraught. And, as you say, if you're taking someone who isn't otherwise within the range of plausible applicants for the position, that may ultimately not be doing the hire any real favor.