Professional partners

June 11, 1999

How do academic couples cope with feelings of rivalry and accusations of nepotism? And how easy is it to get a job in the same universityanyway? Kate Worsley investigates.

They say you are most likely to meet your long-term partner at college or at work. In that case, academics, whose work is college, should be the most incestuous bunch of colleagues around. A shared history that moves from lectured to lecturer, from reading set books to writing them, is bound to provide a stronger tie. A survey in the United States in 1990 found that among married professors 35 per cent of the men and 40 per cent of the women were married to other academics.

But is love really any safer inside the ivory tower? If you are a chemist and he is in semantics, do you actually have much in common work-wise? You may understand each other's research assessment exercise moans and marking load, but that means you are both under pressure at the same time: who puts the rubbish out then?

Even if you do share a passion for your subject, how do you work in the same field without encountering accusations of nepotism, or having to deal with mutual rivalry? And when moving up the ladder often necessitates changing universities, who leaves and who follows? Early in careers it is common for one partner or the other to spend periods away from home on short-term contracts. But ending up at the same university is by no means guaranteed.

The practice of joint hiring, popular in the 1980s in the United States when salaries were generous and universities flexible, is frowned on here, and anyway, who wants to be seen as dead weight, only along for the ride? Nevertheless, it is still a coup for any institution to bag the two halves of a couple who are both high-fliers. Historians David Cannadine and Linda Colley both famously returned to the UK last year after an extended period in the United States at Columbia and Yale respectively, to get jobs at the University of London, albeit in different parts.

Even though they may not be hired as part of the same deal, many British academic couples do manage to find jobs at the same university, or at least in the same town. Susan Greenfield and her partner Peter Atkins are both fellows at Lincoln College, Oxford. Sussex University English dons Jonathan Dollimore and his partner Rachel Bowlby were both appointed to chairs at York last year. And architectural stars Jeremy Till and Sarah Wigglesworth joined the University of Sheffield this year as full chairs, although Wigglesworth, who is also a practising architect, is only part-time.

"There is a saying: two for the price of one, or one for the price of two," comments Till. "The advantages of having us both were discussed with Sheffield, Sarah with her architectural practice and me with my research." Architecture is a field with a history of partners feeding off each other to produce their best work, architects Alice and Peter Smythson for instance. "And I know I wouldn't be where I am today without Sarah," says Till.

This sort of symbiotic relationship makes it even harder to leave work at work. Till and Wigglesworth have the further demand of a second joint project: they are also building their own home out of straw bales.

Kate Flint, 45, is a fellow in English literature at Linacre, Oxford's postgraduate college. In September she will take over as head of the university's English faculty from her husband Nigel Smith, 40, of Keble College, when he takes up a post at Princeton University. They met at a conference in 1980, when Flint was teaching at Bristol and Smith was an undergraduate at Hull. They were friends for five years, then started going out once they were both working at Oxford. "Our wedding was the most well-attended English faculty meeting in many years."

Kate Flint: "It would be disingenuous to say I didn't feel a twinge of envy when Princeton approached Nigel. But they famously don't do 'joint hires', which are increasingly common in the States, because many universities realise they get one and three-quarters good people rather than no one at all. But going as a sort of handbag wouldn't be for me at all. I very much hope something will turn up for me in the States. I'm ready for a change.

"We do talk a lot of faculty business in what otherwise might be domestic time. It comes home and it travels with us. Academic life has a very blurred boundary between public and private and having someone for whom that isn't an issue and doesn't say 'that's enough, stop now' means you never have to explain your peculiar work rhythms to each other.

"I would find it quite hard having a partner who worked directly in the same area. (Kate is a specialist in literature of the 19th century, Nigel in that of the 17th). Our specialism and ways of working are very different but we are both committed to the same approach; to reading texts via an exploration of the social and historical context in which they were written. But we have been scrupulous that our relationship within the department is a professional one. I have seen personal business brought into meetings when I wish it hadn't been.

"Students know we are linked and it's nice for them, say if they come round to a party at our house. It has been quite useful for them to get oblique messages across, knowing it will be passed on."

Nigel Smith: "Princeton was interested in me rather than Kate because there were lots of people already in the States in her field. It is hard to imagine I could ever outstrip her. When we first got together she had a lot of experience I didn't have. I've learned a lot from her. We've tried to satisfy each other's career so they both come first. We've enjoyed sharing a common responsibility for students, although it's been good that we are in different colleges - it would be impossible if we were in the same one.

"You have to get out of college sometimes. We've generated a habit of going to London to eat out. When you're tired you feel you are in a goldfish bowl.

"We weren't very happy that she would be taking over from me as chair of the faculty board. I didn't want the faculty to carry on commanding every conversation."

Patsy Stoneman, 58, is reader in English at Hull and has been married for 37 years to Colin Stoneman, 59, who lectured in South African studies at York until the course closed down three years ago. They met as undergraduates at University College London in 1958.

Patsy Stoneman: "Our joint interest was music. Colin was studying chemistry, but he used to ask me out to the opera. He didn't know what literary criticism was but he was a good person to try ideas out on. After we got married Colin was already doing a PhD at UCL and I did a MA so we lived in a tiny flat in Paddington.

"Colin was offered a job at Hull in 1964 when there was an expansion in provincial universities and he was able to say, will there be a job for my wife? They asked around and there was a vacancy in the teacher training college: only two people were interviewed and I got the job. Two years later a job came up in the English department at Hull and I've been there ever since. "Almost as soon as he started at Hull he realised chemistry wasn't what he wanted to do. He took a correspondence course in maths with economics and then got access to data on Rhodesia when it became independent. Because of his access to this data Colin became adviser to Robert Mugabe in exile and was able to publish on economics.

"In 1980 he was offered a research fellowship in economics in Rhodesia and I took a year's unpaid leave to join him and the girls, who were born in 1968 and 1971. I was conscious of not having had time to catch up with the post-structuralist revolution in English studies, so that period allowed me to do so and I was able to teach very differently when we returned.

"Colin and I have changed places. I spent 22 years on half-time. Colin was full-time and flying all over the world. After I returned to full-time lecturing in 1990 I was promoted to senior lecturer and then reader, got my PhD, published five books, took on admin. And while my world has been quite close-knit, his has always been far-flung. He always worked mostly from home and uses email and the internet a great deal.

"We originally intended to establish ourselves at Hull and then go to a developing country but it never quite happened. We both had stable and acceptable jobs, which has been important to us. We always thought life should have more to it than work. We have both seen couples have nervous breakdowns through devoting themselves night and day to the job."

FAMOUS ACADEMIC COUPLES

David Butler and Marilyn Butler

Amartya Sen and Emma Rothschild

David Cannadine and Linda Colley

Ben Pimlott and Jean Seaton

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