October 31, 2001

Universities Hiring More Married Profs

Print More

Professors Kelly Zamudio and Harry Greene had a good deal going at Berkeley three years ago, before Cornell lured the star biologists away by making job offers to both of them.

Prof. Zamudio, ecology and evolutionary biology, who studies population dynamics in reptiles and amphibians, had just finished her post-doctorate at University of California at Berkeley.

She originally sought a job with the school, where Greene, her husband, had been an established snake behavioral ecologist for more than 20 years.

As Berkeley hesitated to offer Zamudio a position due to space constraints within the department, Cornell came calling and offered Zamudio a full-time professorship. Given Greene’s prestige, they coated the package by offering him a tenured professorship as well.

Recognizing Zamudio’s strong potential and afraid of losing Greene, Berkeley retaliated and also offered Zamudio a position.

But it was too late to retain the couple, who had already set their sights high on Ithaca.

“We’d already grown attached to Ithaca, and we felt like Berkeley was too reactive to Cornell’s offer,” Greene said.

He admitted they were luckier than most couples they knew.

“Ultimately, we had a really hard decision to make between two really good schools,” he added.

Zamudio said she knew of many cases where one trailing spouse had to unhappily settle for a second-rate job in academia.

“Cornell was very sensitive to our case,” she said.

Zamudio and Greene are one of four married couples working within the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Although the number of spouses in the department is unusually high, Kraig Adler, vice provost for life sciences, said partner considerations have escalated during his 30 years at Cornell.

“It’s something we’ve had to deal with for a long time, and it’s likely to become more of an issue,” he said.

About 50 to 60 percent of the faculty members at Cornell have spouses with Ph.D.s., he added. “Smart people tend to marry smart people.”

The University does not keep track, however, of the number of professors who are married to other professors at Cornell.

To cope with the growing pressure of spousal partner recruitment and retention, Robert L. Harris, vice provost for diversity and faculty development, was appointed to oversee the issue two years ago.

Cornell views spousal hiring as a potential advantage, Harris said, because it can bring two outstanding individuals to the University, as in the case of Greene and Zamudio.

It can also lock faculty members into their positions. Given the difficulty of finding two jobs at the same university, tenured couples are more likely to stay put, he added.

But it can also be a contentious issue.

Over the years, the University has lost a handful of prominent faculty members because their spouses could not be accommodated, Harris said.

Cornell does not have a generic policy but recruits spouses on a case by case basis.

“Quality is obviously the highest consideration,” he said.

Spousal hiring used to be prevented under the University’s nepotism policy.

In 1898 when Cornell appointed Anna Comstock, an assistant professor of nature study, she was the first woman given a professorial rank at the University.

But the status didn’t last long.

The appointment was rescinded a year later, and she was demoted to lecturer when members of the Board of Trustees deemed it “inappropriate” for the wife of Prof. John Henry Comstock, entomology, to be the faculty.

She did not become a full professor until 1920, only two years before retiring.

Throughout her life, Comstock — who earned a B.S. from Cornell in 1885 — was known as a pioneer naturalist, writer, illustrator and wood carver.

Although the nepotism principle was officially eliminated in 1965, a clause remained in the Faculty Handbook prohibiting the hiring of relatives by blood or marriage within the same department.

“As a general rule, members of the same family will not be employed in the same academic department,” the principle stated.

Therefore, when renowned psychologist Eleanor Gibson came to Cornell in 1949 with her husband James, she had to relinquish her bona fide associate professor position at Smith College to become a research associate.

Not until 1966 was she appointed psychology professor, at which point the Gibsons became the first married couple in a single department’s faculty at Cornell.

In 1971 Gibson was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences, considered one of the highest honors accorded an American scientist or engineer. One year later she received the National Medal of Science.

Gibson’s high-ranking prestige made her a special case and enabled her to overcome University policy by chairing the psychology department. She was the first woman at Cornell to occupy an endowed chair.

The 1972 Faculty Handbook made it clear that spouses could not serve in supervisory roles to one another without the dean’s permission.

What was the relationship between the careers of Eleanor and James Gibson? James Gibson, who died in 1979, wrote an essay that the nature of their collaboration at Cornell sprang from a deep interest in each other’s independent work.

He wrote, “What is the relationship between her work and mine over all these years? … She has a separate but related body of research and publication. … We have collaborated on occasion, but not as a regular thing. And when we did, we were not a husband and wife team, god knows, for we argued endlessly. The popular stereotype of the married pair of scientists working harmoniously together is a sentimental stereotype in which the wife is the helper.”

The University’s current views toward nepotism are expressed in the 1990 Faculty Handbook.

“The University seeks to provide equitable employment opportunities to all persons, including those related to one another by blood, marriage, or personal affection. … As for affectional ties, it is deemed fruitless to try to legislate the appropriate avoidance of judgments that cannot be impartial, but this is left to the conscience and discretion of the individual.”

Supervisory positions among relatives are allowed, which has enabled both Professors Ronald Herring and his wife Valerie Bunce to serve simultaneously as faculty member and government department chair — and then switch roles within the decade.

Herring and Bunce left tenure professorships at Northwestern University before they came to Cornell in 1991. Ron was chair from 1993 to 1996 and Valerie became chair this fall.

Herring said the only time the supervisory issue became a problem was when he had to set his wife’s salary. To avoid a conflict of interest, he took the matter to the dean.

The success of spousal recruitment and retention is often related to the number of job opportunities in the local community, according to Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president for University relations.

One reason there is so much pressure on Cornell to invest in spousal accommodation is because Ithaca does not have as many employment opportunities as New York or Boston.

Stephen Rittenberg, vice provost for academic administration at Columbia University, admitted that Columbia may have an easier time retaining spouses because of its urban location.

He could not remember recently losing any valuable faculty members due to lack of spousal accommodations.

Columbia does not have a formal nepotism policy, he said.

“We do whatever it takes to recruit outstanding faculty members,” he said. “We expect everyone to meet high standards, including spouses.”

Brown University, on the other hand, is located in a smaller urban environment and has lost a number of faculty members due to the issue, according to Rebecca Wakefield, director of academic management services at Brown.

“We certainly do have a problem here,” she said.

Although Brown considers the matter on a case-by-case basis, she said it is easier for the school to recruit married couples if the trailing spouse is female, because of the school’s commitment to lessening the gender gap in academia.

“It’s becoming a feminist issue,” she said.

Dartmouth College compensates for its small town atmosphere by being extra flexible in its spousal recruitment, according to Jan Carroll, assistant dean of faculty at Dartmouth College.

“For any given job, if all things are equal between two candidates, then the preference is given to the spouse,” she said.

Sometimes especially gifted faculty members can be hired even if the University lacks space by dipping into the endowment funds and creating a new position.


Archived article by Jennifer Roberts