Spousal Hiring

January 2001

October 2000

Excerpts from an e-mail exchange between
Harvey Shulman, Concordia University and John Furedy, University of Toronto

Shulman: Spousal hiring is increasingly an issue in universities. Universities have several approaches from no special programs to designated funds to allow appointments with tenure for married academics. As faculty hiring is at its highest in years (and will increase), and there is competition to recruit for Canada Research Chairs, spousal hiring has become a means to entice a scholar to accept an appointment. It seems to me that this practice raises major issues re hiring processes and the use of academic positions.

Furedy: I don't think this is an issue of academic freedom and scholarship, because in many cases it is possible to make a valid argument for spousal hiring. That is, if one can get a real "star" by also providing a position for a competent but not star-quality spouse, then in terms of overall departmental merit, this is a sound decision.

Shulman: John, your position seems to allow for "star" hiring as a reason to compromise fair hiring for others.

Furedy: I was thinking of situations where both wife and husband are in the same discipline, so that a single department is making a decision, and looking to the needs of the department as a whole. Getting a top academic is very difficult. The decision to offer a position to a spouse could still be a decision for merit, overall.

Shulman: What about the situation where a position is arranged for the spouse in another department?

Furedy: When it comes to getting another department to take someone who is not the best, this is probably not permissible and, if it is done, the spouse has to be at least quite close to the best for the other department to go along. Otherwise that department loses out in maximizing the merit of its faculty. I would think that no self-respecting department will agree to take a star's spouse simply to accommodate the department that wants to hire the spouse, if only because departments are usually in competition with one another for resources.

Shulman: But surely spousal hiring practices go well beyond your circumscribed example of two positions in one department? I think it would be rare for one department to need two positions corresponding to spousal competence. Most cases I've heard of involve two departments where special pleadings take place to privilege a candidate for the good of another unit's priorities. In other words, academic priorities are revised to adjust for spousal hiring. I think that Queen's has a contingency fund for this through which spouses can be hired, with departmental approval. I am not an ideologue on this, but I think it is a matter for concern.

Furedy: All this shows, Harvey, how complex this issue is. Another downside to spousal hiring that can interfere with overall departmental academic performance is that on controversial issues where a department has to make choices, the spouses do, or are perceived to, form a political voting bloc.

Shulman: Yes, the bloc vote, which could even be a factor in other arenas in the institution, is a major downside. And even if matters are ideal in practice, there are awkward possibilities: one day, both may stay or both may leave (at the same time), and even if they stay, the department might not get another appointment in a needed area because they got a "twofer" to begin with.

The editor invites further comment on this topic.