Monday, August 17, 2009

Trailing Spouses

Sometime ago I wrote about the blatant class bias and self-referential aspects of the Sloan Foundation's study of how to increase job flexibility for academics. Yes, it was a little like studying ways to make Yao Ming taller.

Another aspect of academics that reveals a huge class bias is the problem of the trailing spouse. This the case of one department in a University -- say engineering -- interviewing a candidate and deciding to make an offer. (Of course no questions about marital status are permitted, not because it is not relevant but because it could mean a law suit.) Now that candidate says, "Oh my husband, Phil, will have to have a job in the Math department. " Sometimes the Math department is happy. More often, all kinds of squirming goes on to twist the arm of the Math department to hire him. A person gets hired who would not other wise be hired and there are side payments from engineering. The reasoning by the engineering department is "We could not have gotten Carol if we had not done this." Of course for what they are paying Carol (some of which shows up on Phil's check) they could have hired someone much better than Carol. In fact, the people who should be most unhappy are Carol's counterparts who are single or married to non academics. What Carol has managed to do is parlay being married into a higher salary than that received by her equals. Or you could say the counterparts are paid less because they are single.

One reason this persists is the view of the privileged that they are entitled to it all. It does not cross their minds at a critical time that one has to make choices in life. In fact, the vast majority of people make choices. Some are married or have partners and others do not. Some have working spouses and some have stay-at-home spouses. Some have children and others do not. No one except the married professionals seem to expect to be immune from the costs of their choices and it seems likely that we are talking, in those cases, about two people of privilege.


Anonymous said...

Does the person being hired really deserve any blame here? Everyone bargains for the highest salary they can get. That has nothing to do with being elitist. I did that when I worked as a busboy.

If the university overpays for a faculty member, is anyone but the university really to blame for its poor negotiation/decision making?

Jeffrey Harrison said...

We agree and disagree. What we agree on is the irrationality of University hiring. The idea that a department could have hired an even better person that the one they got had they used the money wisely is a product poor administration. It also has a scratch my back element in that so many setting the policy can seem themselves wanting a return favor.

We disagree on the role of elitism and whether people try for the "highest salary they can get." It's too long to explain and you would have to read a bit on a sense of entitlement but a short version is some people bargain for the most they THINK they can get (believe in a upper bound) and some may bargain for what they think is fair. The more elitist a person is or the more privileged she is, the more she THINKs she can get because she has been conditioned to believe she is more deserving than others. For example, in your busboy experience did you ask for $30 an hour. Probably not because your experience told you it was unlikely or impossible. It would very hard to know if you got the most possible. The elitist assumes that very little is unreasonable. They ask for more and get more.

Anonymous said...

The elites may very well have a distorted view of their worth. But, if the University behaved rationally, that distorted view would leave them unemployed or force the elites to re-evaluate themselves.

It is only the poor decision making (and the "scratch my back" attitude) of the administration that allows the elite faculty member to actually obtain the distorted salary.

I agree that your experience informs what you believe is possible. However, the fact that the elites' experience tells them unreasonable amounts are attainable doesn't make them any different than anyone else. It just means the stimuli they were responding too was distorted. This again would be the fault of the university and all of the other entities in the elites' lives that gave them more than they were worth.

Anonymous said...

I agree to a certain degree w/ the last post. But have you considered that acting rationally (i.e., not overpaying for faculty) by one university while all other similar universities are acting irrationally (i.e., overpaying) is, in fact, irrational. So, unless the potential faculty members themselves stop demanding unreasonable salaries, the universities themselves are powerless to reign in the excess.