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New Report Explores Recruitment and Retention for Academic Couples of Color

For his dissertation, Dr. Daniel Blake originally planned to focus on interventions for first-generation students and students of color. But when his fiancée started applying to Ph.D. programs, he found himself on a personal research mission, looking for whatever data he could find on the recruitment and retention of academic couples of color.

“There was really no guarantee that she’d get into a program that was geographically convenient for us,” said Blake, a Provost Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and a visiting scholar at the Proctor Institute for Leadership, Equity, & Justice at Rutgers University. “While she was travelling for one of her Ph.D. interviews, I started reading about the topic. When I was looking at the literature, I saw there wasn’t that much research on it. It’s also dated – it’s not that contemporary – and thinking about us, I’m Black and she’s Latina. I didn’t really see any diverse couples in the research.”

Dr. Daniel BlakeDr. Daniel Blake

Blake is now working to fill the gap. He authored a report based on his dissertation research, which was released on Wednesday, called “Dual-Career Hiring for Faculty Diversity: Insights from Diverse Academic Couples.”

Academic couples make up 36% of full-time faculty. Plus, a third of underrepresented minority faculty are partnered with fellow scholars, the report notes.

“For academic couples to comprise such a large part of the professoriate but for there not really to be that much research on them was surprising for me,” Blake said. “But that was also an opportunity for me at the same time.”

His report explores previous scholarship on academic couples, focusing on two national studies, and shares his own findings from interviews with 11 minority faculty couples about their experiences finding positions at the same university through a dual-career hiring process.

It emphasizes that universities frame these kinds of hires as a way to diversify their faculty, and in theory, it could work. Welcoming two scholars of color, especially into the same department, “can definitely bolster diversity in a big way,” Blake said. But in practice, it’s unclear if universities are living up to their goal.

“There’s a lot of research pointing to dual-career hiring as a strategy for increasing faculty diversity …” he said. “But that research, it doesn’t actually have data that confirms that that’s how the policies are being used.”

So, institutions can’t “take for granted that [dual-career hiring] is used in a way that increases faculty diversity,” he added, “because it may not.”

In fact, prior research on academic couples by Dr. Lisa Wolf-Wendel– associate dean for research and graduate studies and professor of higher education administration at the University of Kansas – found that the majority of dual-career hires  involved White couples, even though chief academic officers reported that their aim was to recruit faculty of color.

“While they said that that was a goal for many of them, the folks who actually got accommodated were not necessarily people of color,” she said. “At least at the time, it would be a senior office – oftentimes a White man – with an accompanying spouse or partner – oftentimes a White woman.”

To actually use dual-career hiring as a diversifying tool, universities can start by having policies for how to onboard academic couples – and being explicit about them, Blake said.

He cited research that found that 24% of all institutions and 45% of research universities had a dual-career couple hiring policy, and among institutions with policies, only 42% were in writing. Similarly, most couples he interviewed didn’t receive any written materials about dual-career hiring. Administrators fear an established process might stigmatize couples to their colleagues, who might think they have an unfair advantage, but to Blake, this is “a bit of a misguided view.”

“I feel like the less transparency there is around the process, the less that faculty communities are being assured they’re being handled in a fair way,” he said. “[And] the more likely it is that it’s going to be a contentious process.”

Plus, couples that participated in the study reported that universities with established dual-career hiring processes turned around offers more quickly, which made them a more competitive option. Couples were also concerned with how both partners were treated in the hiring process, ultimately favoring universities that assessed their merits as individual scholars.

But successfully recruiting minority academic couples is only half the battle. The report also emphasized the importance of retention. Universities tend to view couples as immobile because it can be difficult to find two academic positions, Blake said, but four out of 11 couples in the study successfully changed institutions and eight had other dual-career hire offers. Universities lost faculty of color by making last-minute or reluctant offers to their partners.

The report concludes with a list of recommendations for administrators and couples. It encourages administrators to create – and share – clear policies for dual-career hires that invite faculty engagement, and when a couple is hired, to show sensitivity to them as a family unit, for example, enabling them to take joint sabbaticals. For couples, the report suggests telling universities about academic partners early in the process and working to establish separate scholarly identities. It also recommends that researchers collect institutional and national data on how dual-career hiring affects faculty diversity.

This research may come at a timely moment. In the wake of COVID-19, Wolf-Wendel predicts a “renaissance” for hiring minority academic couples.

Right now, universities are putting in place hiring freezes and voluntary retirement programs, but “when we come out of this, institutions will be in a hiring mode in a way that I don’t think we have been in a long time,” she said. “Coupled with the Black Lives Matter focus on anti-Blackness, I think higher education institutions are going to be in a better position to recognize the value of diversifying their faculty.”

As Blake’s wife finishes her Ph.D. program in neuroscience, they have yet to go on a job hunt together, but they’ve had the kinds of future-oriented conversations any academic couple does.

Blake especially wants to see her career thrive as a woman of color in STEM.

“I’m really sensitive to issues about gender equity,” he said. “I would never want my career aspirations to mean her sacrificing hers.”

After this research, though, he’s armed with more information about what a joint job search might look like.

“I definitely feel like I’ll be more prepared to go through that process having heard these couples’ perspectives,” he said.

Sara Weissman can be reached at [email protected]

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