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The Two-Body Problem: Dual-Career-Couple Hiring Practices in Higher Education

Lisa Wolf-Wendel, Susan B. Twombly, and Suzanne Rice
Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Karen Saxe
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It is June. I am starting my work as chair of a search committee and reviewing the affirmative action policy at my institution. Along comes this book to review — how timely!

Just to let you in on a few preliminary statistics, 65% of people in the national workforce are in dual-career relations (p. 53). Further, 35% of male faculty and 40% of female faculty are partnered with other scholars who are faculty members (p. 2). Even further, an astounding 80% of female academic mathematicians are partnered with other academics (p. 3).

This book is all about policies that schools have in place for accommodating Dual-Career-Couples (D-C-Cs). What is a "policy?" Why have such a policy? What are reasons not to have such a policy? Are such policies legal and, if legal, are they fair? Are there certain types of hires whose partners are given accommodation more often than others? When, in the hiring process, does spousal/partner assistance most often occur? Questions like these are discussed. The authors say that, while there have been small-scale statistical studies (usually data are from surveys of provosts) on hiring practices and policies having to do with D-C-Cs, and while "much has been written about the trials, tribulations, and successes of dual-career academics from the perspective of individual faculty members and couples" (p. 7), there has not been a study done on a national scale.

I was glad to see that this is a book focusing on institutional policy. Indeed, the authors' primary goal is "to inform administrators and policymakers attempting to craft effective policies to meet the needs of dual-career couples." (p. 1)

These authors' starting point is a survey they designed and sent to chief academic officers at 617 colleges and universities across the country. They supply their raw data, together with some statistics and p-values. This is followed by a qualitative discussion of the answers to each of the questions that the survey asked. This discussion appears in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 gives an overview of five different schools' policies; each of these five is then discussed at length in the five subsequent chapters (Chapters 4-8). Chapters 9 and 10 contain conclusions and suggestions. The book also contains a useful reference section that includes websites containing sample universities' policies on hiring D-C-Cs.

I have thought about the issues involved extensively and have to admit that I did not think I would learn too much, or find the book terribly interesting. I am happy to report that I did find new approaches to, and arguments for and against, hiring practices and policies. One of the approaches that struck me was the notion of a relocation service for spouses and partners (by the way, the authors use the phrase "spouses and partners," and discuss this choice and other language choices that they have made). Relocation services are very common in the for-profit sector, and help new employees and their families with employment for the other adult, and also in finding schools, churches, and the like. These services are obviously valuable to the new employee, and it is hard to argue that there is a negative side to providing such a service (except cost). What I had not thought about is the value that the institution gets from providing such a service — it can clearly raise morale for the new faculty member (I had considered that) but it can also, very importantly, help to strengthen the relation between the institution and the surrounding communities. Potentially, too, useful bonds are created between other schools and businesses in the area. Providing relocation services is a "good neighbor" policy!

Another part of the book that particularly interested me is the discussion of the pros and cons of creating positions to accommodate D-C-Cs, and the necessary ensuing discussions of the adjunct system that is in place at so many institutions. Creating a position — be it academic or administrative — can work well in the short run, and may even work well in the longer run if the person that the position is created for truly wants that career path, and, crucially, if there is 100% buy-in by the faculty members of the department in which this new position is created. There is a wide variety of models for the creation and funding of such positions, and you can read the book to learn more about them. There are so many negatives involved, though, that a really strong system must be in place for "created position" hiring to work, and such hiring seems almost impossible at smaller schools (e.g., liberal arts colleges). Negatives include actually blocking professional progress of the trailing partner, "second-class citizenry" for the trailing partner, loss of autonomy for the faculty in the department of the created position in terms of setting their own direction for curricula and hiring, strain on the (most likely young) couple's relationship if one partner is considered more desirable than the other college colleagues. Finally (my last barbed comment on the adjunct system, I promise!), many adjuncts do not contribute to the school outside of the classroom — they do not sit on college committees, and often do little in terms of advising and curriculum development. All this said, there are some advantages to hiring adjuncts, and I found it especially interesting to read about so-called Bridge programs, to accommodate D-C-Cs.

Of course, hiring a person into a created position is an "opportunity hire" of a sort, and all opportunity hiring is under considerable scrutiny right now. Are "closed searches" even legal? To be sure, institutions that engage in such practices have all developed guidelines to ensure that they are in compliance with Executive Order 11246 (p. 128+).

Finally, let's ask ourselves some obvious questions:

Why would you want to read this book?

If you are part of a D-C-C and are looking for job(s), if you are a department chair or provost, if you are generally interested in personnel policy at your institution, if you are interested in affirmative action, if you are involved with a search in your department, then you may be interested by what is in this book.

Why should mathematicians, in particular, read it?

This question is not so easy to answer. I can think of at least two reasons. One is that "we" (mathematicians in academia) are interested in seeing more of our own serving in positions of leadership on college and university campuses. Anyone aspiring to be a department chair or provost, or something similar, might do well to at least peruse this book. Another reason is to see evidence that at least one undergraduate statistics course, or other course focusing on quantitative fluency, will prove useful to almost any undergraduate. At a time when many schools are discussing introducing graduation requirements having to do with quantitative fluency, and many mathematicians are very involved, if not leading these discussions, it is worth noting that these authors use survey methods and statistics to support their suggestions for hiring policy changes.

Karen Saxe ( is Professor of Mathematics at Macalester College. In some ways, she is qualified to review this book. She brings background from experience as chair of the college tenure and promotion committee, from service on several search committees (in departments ranging from physics to music to religious studies), and from her experiences as a college Affirmative Action officer. Additionally, she is one-half of a D-C-C and falls into many subcategories discussed in the book — her husband is also an academic and is also a mathematician (but is not at the same institution!).