Sunday, February 18, 2007

Academic Nepotism?

Does the concept of nepotism describe the hiring of both members of an academic couple by one university? Yes, I suppose so, even though neither member of the couple is the one making the hiring decision. It's not the same kind of nepotism as when John F. Kennedy appointed his brother Bobby as Attorney General. Nevertheless, it does involve at least one person in the couple's being hired because of their relationship to another.

In my field, there are rare examples of parent-offspring pairs in related fields of research, and I suppose that the famous name is a plus in some ways for the offspring, but I've seen it backfire for father-daughter pairs (the usual sexist rumors that he is really the brains behind all her research). Most often, the situation involves a couple, whether a married couple or long-term partners.

Another variable is whether both members of the couple are being considered simultaneously for hiring, or whether one has already been hired and the other is considered later (i.e., in the case of one member of the couple's not yet being done with his/her Ph.D. at the time the other was hired). The latter situation can be hard on the non-employed member of the couple, and these days still seems to require that a competing offer for both be obtained in order for both to get academic positions.

Nepotism is unavoidable if women are going to be hired in significant numbers at academic institutions. It's important to note that nepotism in this sense involves both the case of a woman offered a job by an institution that is primarily interested in hiring the other member of the couple (typically a husband) and the case of an institution wanting to hire a woman and also offering a position to her partner/spouse. In some cases, the university administration provides funds for the extra position, either permanently or as a 'bridge' to the next retirement in a department. Difficulties arise when departments have to fund the position, the positions are in different academic units of a university (and the higher level administration doesn't help facilitate the hires), and if both members of the couple require large amounts of start-up funding.

In most cases that I am aware of, the 'extra' person is not taking away a position from a 'more deserving' person out there in the applicant pool. It is important not to get into the mode of thinking that unqualified people (substitute name of underrepresented group) are taking jobs away from qualified people (substitute name of dominant group).

However, the Kennedy example aside, the concept of nepotism typically implies that a person being appointed is selected despite their lack of qualifications or abilities, and that's a source of yet more trouble for academic couples.

Most departments and universities hire faculty with the expectation that they will succeed -- faculty will get tenure and do well with whatever the research-teaching-service expectations are for the institution. So what to do if there is an imbalance between the qualifications of members of an academic couple? That is, what if one is qualified to be hired at a major research university and the other isn't?

I don't have The Answer. I don't think it's in anyone's interest to hire an unqualified person in a tenure-track position at a research university, but I think that the definition of 'qualified' needs very careful consideration in these cases. It needs extremely careful consideration, so as to be sure that the usual biases about what makes a successful scientist are not clouding the evaluation of a promising female scientist.

Another pitfall is hiring one member of the couple in a tenured or tenure-track position and the other in a low-level, low-respect position. That doesn't do anyone any good either -- not the couple, and not the department/university.

I stand by my statement that nepotism is required for women science/engineering faculty to be hired in significant numbers at academic institutions, particularly at universities and colleges that are rather isolated, leaving few to no other opportunities for alternative academic employment by one member of the couple. There's no reason, however, why nepotism has to be forced into the existing academic culture without the possibility of changing the culture. Why can't the culture itself change? Why does it have to be an all-or-nothing situation in which you get on the tenure track and either succeed or not in a certain amount of time? Why do non-tenure track positions have to be associated with so much less respect and so much less chance of career advancement? Is there room for other types of positions with different expectations in terms of the balance of teaching-research-service? The academic culture needs to change, and it needs to change at all levels -- administrators need to be creative, and faculty need to be open-minded.


Ann Nelson said...

I have been associated with 3 major physics departments, and have noticed that physicists have less trouble with a 'spousal hire' on the case where the wife must be hired in order to get the husband than the converse. The prevailing idea seems to be that a high powered male physicist might well be worth 2 positions, and anyway hiring the wife might give the department some brownie points at the administrative level for hiring a woman. The converse always provokes an uproar; I think because people are barely willing to concede that the woman might be tolerable, much less that she might be so good that creating a second position for her husband would be worth it.

I think more flexibility in the kinds of positions available, eg part time, research, etc. could be great for two career couples, although I am speaking as a member of such a couple who have achieved the "nirvana" of two regular tenured positions in the same department (I was the spousal hire).

btw I have never commented before but I LOVE your blog and find it quite addictive. I feel like you must be my alter ego your experiences with your colleagues seem so similar to mine.

FemaleCSGradStudent said...

[sound of applause]

Am I a woman scientist? said...

As uncomfortable as I am with your statement, it seems logical. If academic women are much more likely to be partnered to another academic (the converse is not true for men; there was an article on this in Nature last week)), then the two-body problem for women will be more pervasive.

Here in this Scandinavian country, their academic system is in the middle of being completely overhauled to conform to EU standards (as is the system in all other EU countries). They are doing away with tenure here (!!!), and putting all professor and lecturer positions which used to be permanent onto 5-year renewable contracts. This is to deal with the large dead wood problem they have here, but I suspect also to give the large number of Ph.D.'s they're producing "a shot" at these positions.

They are also drastically increasing the amount of money (both at the national and EU level) for 3-year or 5-year "floater" grants, which pay for salary for the PI plus students/post docs, supplies and equipment, and overhead. The recipients can go wherever a university will have them, and they do not already have to be at a university or research institute to apply (i.e., they are open to those coming off maternity leave and unemployment). The idea is to give researchers greater flexibility in where they do their science, both to increase the movement of researchers across EU borders, but also I suspect to bolster the research roster of the "boondocks" universities.

I have no idea how this will play out in general, nor what it means for women and the two-body problem. With a large number of floating researchers and greater rotation in the professor/lecturer ranks it could mean an easier time for the two-bodies to be co-located, however that location may change more frequently. Perhaps too frequently....

Anonymous said...

I've never quite understood the argument that spousal hires mean the uni ends up with a less qualified person. After all, the process surely works both way: A department offering two jobs for a couple gets a serious advantage over other less flexible departments, which means that those hiring couples can choose the people. How this is supposed to lead to LESS qualified hires, beats me.

JoAnne said...

Hi Ann!

Thanks for your comment - I can back it up with personal experience.

JaneB said...

Hi, I agree with 'am I a woman scientist' - uncomfortable but seeing the logic. It's hard to see it as completely fair that of two equally good candidates of the same gender, the one whose partner is employed at a place already is more likely to get the job (yes, this is just one small unfairness within a system full of 'luck factors', but still... of course, being single myself and having no other body to trail hence never getting this 'advantage' may bias my thinking a little). Especially as having two members of a couple in the same department can be distinctly UNharmonious and problematic in some cases (yes, I have experience of that). Also, finding the funds for new positions is not trivial, especially in a poorer, regional institution (with a strong research rep - money and quality don;t always match sadly), and has knock-ons for years for the department.

I love your blog too, it's reassuring to see that the grass isn't greener in other places, and to feel that as a woman in science, other people have the same sorts of ex[eriences!

Anonymous said...

If a department cannot understand that the act of hiring someone is a holistic effort, than they will only be able to hire candidates who have literally no life outside of their careers. The vast majority of successful researchers do have families, lives and interests that are outside of academia and the university and the university does very well to accommodate in some way those parts of their lives in the package, as they have ALWAYS done in attracting all people to the campus--faculty, staff, grad students, undergrads, etc. Would anyone really be happy if their partner could not be helped when it's possible to do so? Doesn't the intelligent department realize that it's a win-win? I like to think we're not just operating on one theoretical pie of finite money or number of positions here: if a department hired me and could hire my spouse as well and we were successful, the department would grow in prestige and in funding and would be able to attract more space and hire even more people, ideally. This, at least, I would like to think.

Anonymous said...

Hello! I love this blog!

I am a chemistry graduate and am dating another chemist (in another division, and a separate lab). We are discussing when we should get married and our career goals. We are in the same year of school and have both talked about being professors. I think he's rather set on it (and looking for a smaller schoool, not a mega research place like this one), but I have yet to decide - I have had some very positive industrial experience and am considering that or a national lab as well. I think my desire to teach would be statisfied by teaching at a community college later in life, after some "real world" experience.

My question is this: IS it easier to both find jobs when both members of the partnership are looking for professorial positions? Or can it hinder you?

Anonymous said...

(you can call me "trailing husband")

I agree with the first anonymous above---offering two jobs can be a great advantage for a university.

In fact, in my experience, the best universities are also the best at maximizing this advantage. I found that there was a pretty good correlation between the quality of a University and their willingness to consider hiring my wife and me together. A pretty low one on the list offered my wife a job, told her it was "because she's a woman, and the department got special funds for that", and said there was no way they could accomodate me. The best ones on the list just went ahead and offered two positions. I attributed this in part to better financial resources at the better schools, but perhaps more importantly to the fact that the faculty at the better schools feel more secure about themselves and less threatened by these kinds of arrangements.

Female Science Professor said...

janeb - Single people have the advantage when it comes to a faculty job search. Some (many?) places won't even consider hiring a couple, and it is an additional stress at an interview when interviewers try to find out (although they aren't supposed to) whether a candidate has a '2 body problem'. In fact, single candidates or candidates with portable/non-academic partners tend to advertise their situation during interviews.

bsci said...

The unstated fact of your piece, which "Am I a woman scientist said is that a significantly larger percent of academic women are married to academic spouses.

Unless this changes, nepotism or not, I think the gender gap will always be a problem for isolated colleges and universities.

I am currently a trailing husband (my nonscientist academic wife is looking to get jobs were I can get a second postdoc). My research involves expensive shared hardware that requires a group of researchers with similar interests. There are probably 60-70 places in the US that would work for me, but many are clustered in cities. Many potentially good places for my wife including some big university towns had nothing for me unless I was willing to radically change my research focus.

To generalize this, even if an isolated university wants to use nepotism to hire a scientist spouse, unless the spouse is in a very similar identical field, probability works against the school having the right resources for both. Add on that isolated college towns often have less job options for spouses makes recruiting generally harder.

Ms.PhD said...

I'm going to blog about this on my page, so as not to eat up space here. great post!

Anonymous said...

Forgive me for cross posting this comment. So, after reading your post and the one over at YoungFemaleScientist, I have a question. Both of you and the commentors seem to focus on academic folks in the same department. I'm wondering if anyone has insight into an academic/staff couple. I am interview for faculty positions, but my spouse is in PR and development. Has anyone been involved in hiring a tenure-track faculty member and needing to find employment for a spouse in a staff position?

Female Science Professor said...

anonymous, that's an interesting situation. I suppose it depends on the institution and their attitude towards recruiting faculty. I don't know of examples exactly like yours, though it's not uncommon for departments/institutions to hire non-PhD spouses/partners in staff positions. I know of examples of spouses being hired as lecturers, technical staff, accountants, and so on. I also know of one case where the trailing spouse started at a low level staff position and ended up being a Dean! That was at a small college.

Anonymous said...

Although your post was about same-family hires, the worst form of "nepotism," in my opinion, is the sort of virtual nepotism that occurs when a high-ranking faculty member skews the departmental or institution's hiring process to favor only his/her protogees. What's worse: hiring a person because they are married to another individual also being hired, or hiring a person to make one's department the bastion of all things Dr. Bigwig says and believes? Although it is nice to have colleagues who work in the same or similar area as oneself just down the hall, there are whole departments that exist that are so skewed to focus on only one, small concept that the more broad, general-discipline-related title attributed to the department shouldn't even be used.

Female Science Professor said...

Yes, that is an excellent point about protogee-hiring.

James Annan said...

Nepotism is unavoidable if women are going to be hired in significant numbers at academic institutions.

No, that isn't what "nepotism" means. Nepotism is when someone grants a benefit to a member of their own family, because of their relationship. If Candidate A says "give my spouse a job or I won't come" and the hirer acts positively on that, then this is no more nepotism than if they say "give me a bigger salary/office/car".

An anti-nepotism law that catches this situation is a poorly-written one indeed (and I wonder if such laws are used as a convenient excuse rather than a real reason). The only authority the candidate has in this situation is to not take the offer, and the unavailability of employment for the spouse is obviously a valid reason for this (not that they even need a valid reason).

Anonymous said...

Single people have the advantage when it comes to a faculty job search. Some (many?) places won't even consider hiring a couple, and it is an additional stress at an interview when interviewers try to find out (although they aren't supposed to) whether a candidate has a '2 body problem'. In fact, single candidates or candidates with portable/non-academic partners tend to advertise their situation during interviews.

I disagree. Candidates with portable/non-academic partners have the advantage. Single candidates (at least the female ones) are assumed to be inherently portable and require less money to support themselves. As a result, we may be offered the job - but we don't get nearly as nice an offer as the married candidate (i.e. candidate with portable "wife") does.

Anonymous said...

nepotism can refer to friends and by association colleagues hiring others without due process to find the best candidate for the job. i've witnessed this going on in several universities and its depressing; in the cases i've known its been because of the candidates gender and looks rather than their ability. when nepotism happens within universities it blows out of the water the integrity and purpose of such institutions in fighting (fairly and transparently) inequality. academics (and i am one) are, on the whole, apolitical when it comes to their own environment and conduct as a group, while they lecture everyone else about fairness and the need for equality. i would also go further and say there is an inherent middle class nepotism going on within academia which by default recruits others of the same ilk. don't know about husband and wives, but the problem is much worse than two career couples!