A marriage of minds

November 4, 1994

Academic marriages are commonplace but universities can have problems accommodating both spouses. John Davies looks at how scholarly couples cope.

What could be more natural than for academics to marry each other? Look in practically any field of study, and sooner or later you will find a couple. In philosophy, there is Mary and Geoffrey Warnock; in history Linda Colley and David Cannadine; in politics Ben Pimlott and Jean Seaton . . . while any list of notable interdisciplinary couples would include David and Marilyn Butler (psephology and English literature).

But although academic marriages are natural, they cannot always be accommodated within one university. A department might have an opening for distinguished scholar X, but not her husband Y, whose speciality is not needed or is already more than adequately dealt with in that institution. Or Y may be working in a different discipline and the university has no vacancies in that department. In the United States, it is said (although generally denied) that a major institution such as Harvard will lure a leading academic from elsewhere in the country and then persuade a nearby university to offer the desired academic's spouse a job. Does this happen in Britain? David Norburn, director of Imperial College's management school in London, thinks not.

"Let's assume that I wanted the wife (at Imperial), and the husband also wanted to come down from, say, Manchester. Either I would have to have a job for the husband or I would use my networks to try to find the gentleman a job. But at the end of the day it's their problem . . . You can't go round like an employment agency."

In Norwich, at the University of East Anglia, pro-vice chancellor Martin Hollis is emphatic that his institution "doesn't do what is beginning to happen elsewhere -- make a deal that gets a partner in round the corner. The tide seems to be running the other way, but we're being stubborn''. In other words, if one half of an academic couple is looking for a job at UEA, he says, the other cannot expect the university "somehow to find there's another job vacant somewhere''.

What if the partner of a prospective professor were teaching, say, in Cambridge? "We expect people to live within 50km of the university," says Hollis. "Flitting in on alternate Thursdays will not do.'' He accepts that UEA is "a good long way from anywhere else'', but hopes it can rely on what he calls Norwich's "flypaper effect" -- its ability to keep those it has attracted.

An academic couple living in a big city, especially London, is better placed, of course. Donald Gillies, now professor of the philosophy of science and mathematics at King's College, London, and his economist wife Grazia Ietto-Gillies have lived in the metropolis for more than 20 years since leaving Cambridge -- they met at a party there in 1970 while he was a fellow at King's College finishing a doctorate, and she was visiting from the University of Siena.

Early on in their marriage, Ietto-Gillies says, they decided that they would stay in London -- even though they might have had "speedier careers'' if they had been more willing to move. She is now professor of applied economics and head of international business and languages at South Bank University -- where she has taught since 1973 -- and says: "I've always liked the idea of living in Britain." (It is perhaps ironic then that her latest area of research focuses on the effects of internationalisation on women's careers.) "We did occasionally talk about going back to Italy," her husband adds, "but for both of us to get jobs there would have been difficult."

David Norburn himself makes no bones about the fact that he and his wife Sue Birley are, as academics, "a package deal''. They have, he says, "worked together in the same institution for virtually all our married life". (They met as colleagues at the then Regent Street Polytechnic, and have been married 19 years.) Most of the institutions concerned have been in London, but include Cranfield and the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

As a spouse, however, Birley is resigned to the fact that "you are scrutinised more carefully, whether you like it or not''. In their last move, Norburn preceded his wife to Imperial College, and had no hand in her appointment -- she is now director of the business school's doctoral programme. Both work in more or less the same field -- which leads to both rivalry and cooperation. "We don't teach exactly the same subject, but it's the same general area, and we have collaborated in writing a number of papers,'' explains Birley. "But rivalry over teaching scores is good fun.'' Her husband agrees: "There's inherent competition between the two of us. Who can outpublish the other -- that has always been a bit of a race. In the sense of making sure we keep going at it, rivalry is a good thing. And for the joint work that we do . . . it's such a joy to write with somebody to whom you don't have to explain everything."

With other couples, it may be more a matter of finding an area where two separate disciplines overlap. Gillies and Ietto-Gillies have recently collaborated on a couple of papers on ideas of probability in economics. This is a return to the subject that brought them together: it was probability that they discussed when they first met in 1970. "Personally, though, I think it's an advantage to have different subjects'', says Gillies. "There might be more competitive tensions if we were in the same area''.

David Norburn has a different perspective. "In my job there are so many working lunches and dinners where partners are involved. It's a wonderful plus for me that Sue is totally au fait with what's going on at Imperial, so she knows what things should be said to the head of X, Y or Z industry''.

Martin Hollis agrees that as long as they are equal, "partners are a very good idea. They are value for money. They stay''.

Shorrocks and Taylor

Leeds University fellow-academics Diane Shorrocks and Christopher Taylor became husband and wife only this summer, but for both it was a second marriage. Taylor is a professor who currently heads the university's mechanical engineering department, while Shorrocks is a senior lecturer in the school of education.

The two had been acquaintances in the 1970s, when both had young children and were members of the same babysitting circle. But it was, says Taylor, "pure chance that we came back together'' after their first marriages had broken up.

Shorrocks had been a biology lecturer's wife, and it was "because academic life was less pressured in those days'' -- the early 1970s -- that she was able to pursue a doctorate in psychology while bringing up children. "While I was doing research, my husband and I could literally divide the childcare jobs in half," she recalls. She was fortunate, too, in finding a job at Leeds after she had gained her PhD.

Taylor also recalls less frantic times in the 1970s: "We had a young daughter, and, with my Leeds colleague Philip Thody, I ran a club on Saturday mornings for the children of university staff. I often look back and think we couldn't have that nowadays. . . There have been enormous changes in academic life, in the nature of our workload. More is asked of people in their probationary period.'' With the wisdom of experience, the couple say they are determined not to let professional demands keep them apart too much.

"Diane and I are trying to develop a strategy whereby we spend more time together," says Taylor. He found that after recovering from the "turmoil'' of divorce, "as a single man you find yourself with vast amounts of time. I developed a very intensive work life. I'd work Saturdays, Sundays, early mornings, late nights" -- a pattern that he recognises cannot go on. When we spoke, it was just after 5.30pm and he was about to leave his office.

"We are both making deliberate efforts not to work at weekends," adds Shorrocks. "But as I'm involved in a major national research development project" -- she is heading Leeds's work on national assessments for 11-year-olds -- "to some extent it's out of my hands. If I'm summoned to London for a meeting I have to go.'' As for moving on, she says that while "there is still scope for promotion'' for herself at Leeds, "Chris has got about as far as he can go here . . . which may make for problems later''.

Meanwhile, she is in the process of changing her name -- to Shorrocks-Taylor and then eventually Taylor (Shorrocks is her first husband's surname). "We have to do it slowly. The difficulty is to retain my professional identity while not insulting Chris."

The Frenks

Susan and Carlos Frenk were married in 1978 after what Susan describes as "a whirlwind romance". She had just turned 20 and was a Cambridge undergraduate reading Spanish; he was a postgraduate from Mexico working for a PhD in astrophysics.

Now 16 years and two children later, the two both have posts at Durham University as (respectively) lecturer in Spanish and professor of physics. But it has by no means been a direct route from Cambridge for the couple.

After Carlos had been awarded his Cambridge doctorate, their next home was in California: he did research at Berkeley while Susan taught a little and attempted to continue a PhD in Latin American literature. Clearly, the astrophysics took precedence over the Hispanic studies: "I just followed Carlos from place to place," she recalls. "At one point we were commuting between Santa Barbara and Brighton." Her husband had "compromised'' between the competing claims of America and Britain by working alternately three months in California and three at the University of Sussex. "I enjoyed it," he recalls. "I had a car in each place and a wallet in each place. But Susan wasn't very happy." It did not help that she could not drive -- "in California, not driving is worse than not having legs in England".

"What was hardest was that I had no library base, no group of people to exchange ideas with," explains Susan. Although still registered at Cambridge for her doctorate, she was doing most of her research at Sussex.

Transatlantic commuting did not work out. The couple returned to Cambridge -- Susan was by then pregnant -- when Carlos was invited to apply for a post at Durham. In October 1985, the Frenks' first son was born, in Sussex, and three months later they found themselves in their first Durham home, an unfurnished flat.

"There I was trying to finish writing up (the PhD) with a brand new baby, and Carlos was starting a job in which for the first time he would be lecturing a lot, not just researching, and so working long hours. It was hard," says Susan. Nevertheless, she got her doctorate -- achieved under three different supervisors -- and soon after, secured some part-time Spanish teaching at Durham. She is now a full-time lecturer -- a post that she took up just two months after the birth of their younger son.

The couple have been employing a full-time nanny, although Carlos regrets what he describes as "subcontracting the upbringing of our kids to a third party . . . The quality is not the same". He spends, he says, less time with his family than he would like to: "The emphasis on productivity means increasing demands on my time . . . Often I will go back to work after putting the kids to bed."

What about the possibility of moving on? Carlos recently turned down a "good job offer in the United States that would have paid two-and-a-half times more" than his current salary, because the location would not have suited the family. He has also, in the past, turned down job offers in Mexico; at the time, universities there were not well enough equipped for his kind of research. Susan -- who is after all a Latin-American specialist -- admits that "the relationship of Mexico to our lives is an unresolved issue . . . . We have a vast family there that we only see intermittently".

But, she adds: "I spent a long period allowing Carlos's work to take us from one place to another, and although I feel I've benefited a great deal from many of these moves, I don't want to be in that kind of position again."

The Hollises

It was in Berkeley, California, in the early 1960s that Martin Hollis met Patricia Wells. They were both British students, in America on Harkness fellowships. "We sat in a coffee shop,'' recalls Martin, "eating peppermint ice cream and playing a form of intellectual tennis, as the sun set in the West like a giant Coca-Cola sign."

For a while it may have appeared that the Hollises would not be an academic couple at all, as Martin Hollis joined the Foreign Office after his return from the United States. But, frustrated after a year in which he had been sent to learn German and then posted to Moscow, he left to become a lecturer in philosophy at Balliol, while Patricia -- by now Mrs Hollis -- was working on her doctorate, in politics, at Nuffield College nearby.

That doctorate was completed in 1967, at which point the Hollises had to decide where to go next. "We chose Norwich more or less by sticking a pin in the map,'' says Martin. "We applied for separate posts in separate schools at UEA." He was the first of the two to secure a lectureship; they then spent the Christmas and New Year of 1966-67 "wondering if Patricia would get a job too'' before hearing the good news.

"What you must emphasise is that we were a couple coming to a new university and we were in on the ground floor," says Patricia -- now Baroness Hollis. In those early days "there was a sense of sheer excitement that made everything possible''. Small wonder, then, that they have developed a loyalty to UEA, and have resisted all job offers that might have separated them from Norwich, or from each other. "We have been asked to move as individuals," says Patricia, "but we have loved Norwich too much."

Martin Hollis is now UEA's pro-vice chancellor, while his wife's local political activity culminated in a five-year spell as leader of Norwich City Council, from 1983 to 1988 -- hence the life peerage. She was also dean of UEA's school of English and American Studies for three years, and still teaches one day a week at the university.

Soon after they settled in Norwich, Patricia's parents moved down and were thus on hand when the Hollises' two sons, Simon and Matthew, were young. "Thanks to them, I was able to go back to teaching ten days after Matthew's birth," recalls Patricia.

Have the Hollises collaborated in their academic work? Working in neighbouring fields -- politics and philosophy -- they have had some opportunities to do things together. Baroness Hollis instances a course that the two of them ran, on Reason and Revolution. "You taught the reason, I taught the revolution," she reminds her husband.

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