The last presidential election cycle in the United States raised many, many questions. One of them was: “is the role of the first lady outdated?” When the incoming First Lady didn’t do exactly as her predecessors had, or as many had decided was traditional, many thinkpieces were written and hot takes had.** While it can seem like a laughably lighthearted question, the kind of thing relegated to the lifestyle section of national newspapers, I’d argue it’s more important than ever – and incredibly relevant to academia.
Cultural norms are often only visible after they are broken, and this has been true for the perceived (in)actions of the current first lady. Consider this passage from a Huffington Post piece:
In February, Melania Trump broke a longstanding tradition that the first lady accompanies the spouse of a visiting foreign leader. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wife, Akie, was alone during her visit to Washington. The White House claimed Melania Trump’s absence was the result of a scheduling error with Abe.
Brower called the White House’s handling of the visit “embarrassing.”
“You’re being a rude host, really,” Brower said. “Part of the job of the first lady is to escort spouses, men or women, around Washington, and you kind of just suck it up and do it, even if you don’t want to.”
The first lady is expected to do a bunch of hostess work, despite not being a paid employee and/or elected official. [The focus of this post isn’t really on the presidential spouse, so check out one primer on the ‘traditional’ role of the first lady as conceived of by the George W Bush Presidential Library and Museum. Or check out the whole website of the National First Ladies Library. ] And as the “embarrassing” quip shows, her behavior apparently reflects on the president (her husband) AND the country as a whole. Moreover, the end of the passage demonstrates that opting out of this role isn’t, actually, optional.
So, what does this have to do with academia? Well, this industry is rife with first ladies. Most university presidents are men, and many of those men are married to women. Those women are expected to play the role of first ladies for the university – and the expectations for the role are very similar, including hostess duties, fundraising, appearing at public events, and acting as an all-around ambassador of the institution.
A 2011 study by the Council of Independent Colleges on the spouses of university presidents found a wide range in the amount of time first ladies (and spouses) spent on university business and whether/how much spouses were compensated. Compensating spouses of presidents comes with its own set of debates (as it should) – especially at universities that otherwise do not have partner hire programs for staff and faculty. The 2011 study found two-thirds of spouses of university presidents have some kind of formal appointment with the university, yet I highly, highly doubt as high a percent (or the same universities) do the same for the rest of their employees and their spouses. Doubt may be the best I can do, as good data on these policies is sparse.***. Seems important to look into further, especially as most faculty and staff probably work for a university longer than a university president does.
The US still hasn’t decided how it feels about the role of first lady and what to do if someone doesn’t want to take it on. I’d say the same is true for the academy. I am certainly not the first person to raise this question about what the role of spouses of university presidents and whether it should be compensated. One thoughtful piece, framed as a two-sided debate, about this question in academia was published online by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges back in 2013 [read it here].
BUT, and this is a big caveat, it was written by two men. Even though the writer arguing *against* compensating university spouses is the husband of a woman university president****, it is very likely his experience as the spouse of a university president – and the expectations of him by others – are vastly different. I can only hope that the organization revisits the topic with (at least) two women contributors, including a university president and a spouse of a university president. Of course, since both of these roles are seen as institutional spokespeople, likely no one in a current role would be able to speak openly about this topic. And it shouldn’t just be decided by people who have benefited from, and want to participate in, the status quo.
So let’s take it to the comments. What do you think the role of first ladies in the academy should be? Should it be compensated? Is it fair to formally hire spouses of university presidents at schools that won’t do the same for the spouses of other employees?