Marriage and the job

January 31, 1997

As competition torecruit scholars hots up, universities are increasingly offering jobs to star names. Sometimes their spouses come along too. Simon Midgley reports, and (right) two couples talk about their approaches to reconciling work and marriage

In 1995 the newsletter of University College Cardiff reported that internationally renowned German sociologist Ulrich Beck and his wife, Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim, had been offered posts together at University College Cardiff. The husband and wife team would, reported the newsletter, be dividing their time between Munich and Cardiff from October 1995.

Beck, professor at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, would spend up to four months a year at Cardiff as a distinguished research professor. UCC also offered a visiting fellowship to his wife, professor of sociology at the University of Erlangen.

This week academics at the Welsh university said the arrangement was not a package deal. Although Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim did spend six weeks last year as an "honorary research fellow" at UCC in the same couple of months her husband was over there, it was, stressed UCC's professor Paul Atkinson, a "one-off independent deal" for which she was paid only expenses.

There are suspicions that the "package deal" was typical of rumours being put about by Cardiff's rivals, some of whom were also keen to hire Professor Beck, best known for his book The Risk Society, which argues that environmental risk, not class, is the political divider of the late 20th century.

The controversy illustrates both the highly competitive climate of contemporary British academe and the difficulties faced by academic couples trying to maintain relationships in an increasingly mobile market. The imperatives of the research assessment exercise, which rewards universities publishing top-class research, mean that faculties eager to attract academics with international research reputations must offer attractive packages.

Alan Smithers, head of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University, says that because of the RAE universities are prepared to be accommodating to international talent. This might mean that the university finds a place for the spouse. Equally it might be that in the case of a scientist they provide a good laboratory.

UCC did not offer both the Becks salaried posts. But the story points to growing British awareness of a trend hitherto confined largely to the other side of the Atlantic, where the richest universities have always been prepared to bend over backwards to attract academic stars, (see box right).

Even in the US, however, arranging jobs for couples in the same institution is a delicate business. Deans often have to cajole a department to hire the partner of an academic whom another department is eager to appoint. Resentment can be caused if faculty members feel a candidate is being foisted upon them. Some provosts try to sweeten the pill by arranging for departments to be given new money to create a position.

In the past, fears of nepotism kept many US universities from being as amenable to couples as they are today. Historically the spouse - usually the woman - ended up working as a relatively lowly researcher on the campus where her husband had tenure. If both parties wanted tenured positions they might have to take jobs at universities thousands of miles apart.

Wendy Roworth, chairman of the tenure track force of the American Association of University Professors who teaches at Rhode Island University, says: "I have heard of instances (of joint appointments). It is very tricky for most people because jobs are tight. Anybody getting a tenure track job at all is quite lucky, and to find two positions at the same institution and two people getting those positions would be unusual."

Nevertheless, Ms Roworth said she knew of a female mathematics professor whom a certain university was keen to keep. Her husband was working in the chemistry department part-time. When the university heard she was thinking of leaving, it gave her husband a full-time job because female professors of mathematics were thin on the ground and it was keen to retain her. Roworth says such appointments raise affirmative action problems. "I would say, well, you have hired a man in chemistry and perhaps denied this post to another woman or somebody who was better."

And for academics too, the practice may be unacceptable. Certainly Virginia Wise, now a law lecturer in Harvard's law school, felt very strongly that she did not want to be considered for a job as an adjunct to her husband. A few years ago a prestigious American law school approached her to propose a post, but she did not feel comfortable about the offer. It only came after the law school had offered a job to her husband first. "It was so obvious that they had made the offer to Frederick and then said: 'By the way Virginia, we'd love to have you too.' I did not feel like being an add-on and needed to feel like I was independently hired."

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