First Ladies of the Academy

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 One of them was: “is the role of the first lady outdated?”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?


** In fact, if the other candidate had won, the country would have seen just as many thinkpieces, as the “first lady” would have been a man for the first time in the history of the country. The question is broader than, and outside of, political persuasion.
*** One article mentioned that a study of 360 deans said that “80%” of them claimed their institution would “do something” for the spouse of a faculty hire. That hardly counts as a policy or evidence, and without a policy it’s not clear it would be (or has been) applied evenly to faculty and spouses, regardless of gender of either.
****the man arguing for compensation for spouses of university presidents is a university president himself
Further reading:
2016 report (~150 pages) from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities “The Lives of Presidential Partners in Higher Education Institutions

7 thoughts on “First Ladies of the Academy

  1. Why should the wives of those corporate bastards who make $,$$$.$$$ per year be paid for trivial services? Can’t they do something pro bono, if their husbands (actually just roommates) draw so much money from institutional budgets? They have nothing to do beside bullshit and false charities anyways, so why not receiving guests of their husbands (roommates) for free?

    • Thanks for reading. Please check out our comment policy here when considering future comments:

      Sounds like you have some beef with university presidents and their role in higher ed. That is an important topic, but not the subject of this post. You’re making a lot of assumptions about all kinds of things not in the piece, like judging the relationship quality of hypothetical university presidents and their spouses, like ‘false charities’ (not sure what that’s referring to). Expecting unpaid labor of spouses, especially entertaining guests of an institution and whether that should continue, in what ways, is the topic of the piece. Look forward to hearing your respectful thoughts on that – sounds like you’re in favor of not paying spouses for hosting duties.

    • There shouldn’t be any requirements for the first wives (or husbands) to do any work pro bono, because it is not their job! If they wish to contribute, they can do as much as they like, however, it is entirely unfair that they should be asked to pitch in for a job their husbands (or wives) get paid for. Also, it is an entirely unfair assumption that the wives (or husbands) have nothing better to do. Just because they choose to support their spouse in their new jobs, by (often) leaving their own ambitions behind, does not mean that they should be exploited to work for free.

  2. Personally I think it is best for everyone if spouses of university presidents and such-like stay off the university. If they choose to engage in hosting activities on their own free will, it is their choice, but they should *not* be paid for it.

    University presidents get paid more than enough, and far more than what they deserve, if you ask me. Paying their spouses on top of it for minor hosting duties opens the door towards all kinds of conflicts of interests and unprofessional conduct which frankly an university does not need.

  3. If it is being treated as a private function, then it makes sense to think about a private courtesy. However, you seem to be suggesting that is more like the “presidential” first lady. That concept is just nuts. I can only tell you the name of John Key’s wife (Bronagh) because she was his +1 to Prince William’s wedding (his children, the son in particular, are a little better known), I have no idea who Bill English’s wife is (or his children) and I was only pretty sure Helen Cark had a partner so I had to look it up (she has a hubby). Public functions ought to be the haunts of public functionaries, although it is only polite to allow them a +1.

  4. This exists as a microcosm at the collegiate universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The heads of house (each college) often have a spouse/partner, and there is an expectation that they will join in hosting people. I overheard the exasperated wife of a head of house tell her husband “I don’t know why they’ve assumed I’m going to that event – it’s in the middle of the day!” She had been booked for a lunch because her head-of-house husband had RSVP’d (she had not). She worked full time as a medical doctor – there was no way she could or would attend that event. I’d have been ticked off if I were her, too…

  5. Just wanted to say that I miss you ladies! I hope to see more posts soon (though, I know how busy academic life is), but I wanted you to know that I still check in 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s