Book Explores Large And Growing Phenomenon: The Academic Couple

October 31, 1997

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- One of the things scholars haven't spent much time investigating is right under their noses -- themselves and their partners.

However, with the publication of "Academic Couples: Problems and Promises" (University of Illinois Press), a clear and detailed picture emerges of the history and status of the academic couple -- two faculty members living in the same household as spouses or partners. Once a rarity, the academic couple today is a large and growing phenomenon. One national sample of married full-time faculty found that 35 percent of men and 40 percent of women had academic spouses.

In the book, 16 researchers probe a wide range of topics, but they find, in general, that the lives of academic couples -- black, white, married and unmarried, same gender and opposite gender -- do not differ greatly from those of their colleagues who are not mated with academic partners.

With regard to her study of academics in Illinois, book co-editor and contributor Marianne Ferber described her most significant finding as "in many ways a non-finding." According to Ferber, a professor emerita of economics at the U. of I., there isn't "a shred of evidence" that academic couples don't perform as well career-wise as everybody else.

"That used to be the assumption, campus gospel," Ferber said, "that when you hired the wife with the husband, the wife would be no damned good. But there's simply no evidence of that. And that, I think, is good." Ferber and her co-editor also found that partners on the same faculty are about equally likely to be hired by research universities, are promoted to full professor at about the same rate, and are paid about the same as other faculty with comparable qualifications.

Some gender disparities were found, however. For example, male academics with academic spouses are less likely to have published as extensively as male academics with non-academic spouses and are paid less; female academics with academic spouses are more likely to publish more, to hold a higher rank, and to be paid more than their female counterparts with non-academic spouses.

For her study of U. of I. spousal accommodation programs, co-editor Jane Loeb, a U. of I. professor of educational psychology, drew on the experiences of 90 couples hired at the U. of I. Among other things, she found that there is no evidence that spousal hiring undercuts the hiring of minority faculty.

"On the contrary, it seems needed to support the hiring of African-American and Hispanic faculty," Loeb said. However, she also found that "accommodated spouses tend to be in lower priority units than their recruited/retained partners."In her contribution, Linda Perkins, a professor at the City University of New York, explored the history of African-American academic couples at historically black institutions. She found that the practice in these institutions was to use, rather than to waste, the considerable talents and knowledge of well-educated African-American women by also hiring them.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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