It's Really a Three-Body Problem


Two-body problem: As one body orbits the other, it tugs gravitationally on its partner, altering the original orbit. Then the second body does the same. In the end, there's this give-and-take of a dance, as each body influences the other, constantly changing its path. The bigger, more massive body moves the least, spending most of the time in the center of this dance. The smaller body has to careen all over the place, trying to find the right place to fit into the co-orbit.--Thaller, 2002

In our upcoming book, The Two Body Problem (Johns Hopkins Press), we examine the policies and practices employed by colleges and universities that try to respond to the needs of dual-career couples, focusing specifically on cases in which the initial hire is a faculty member. We rely on the perspectives of administrators, and of faculty members and their partners, to describe the benefits, barriers, and unintended consequences institutions have encountered. Some of our major conclusions are reported briefly below.

Institutions recognize that this is an important issue

Our research shows that colleges and universities are beginning to recognize the extraprofessional needs of dual-career couples and are willing to try to help them, whether through a formal policy or ad hoc. Most of the institutions we studied believe that family-friendly policies pay off in faculty productivity and satisfaction. Institutions recognize that the goodwill they show by assisting a partner in finding work is likely to increase their chances of hiring the desired candidate and may secure the couple's loyalty to the institution.

It is difficult to satisfy everyone

Resolution of dual-career accommodation requests, even at places with formal policies, relies on serendipity, timing, and flexibility. Clearly, an accommodation is not going to be made every time there is a request, nor will partners of faculty members necessarily get the jobs they want. This is especially true given that most colleges and universities recognize that short-term appointments are easier and more flexible than accommodations involving tenure-track positions. When institutions attempt to make an accommodation by offering a partner a non-tenure-track position, the couple often feels as though the institution did not do enough to help. Faculty and administrators at the institution, however, feel like they have done all they could to offer assistance. Such conflicting perceptions are commonplace in dual-career hiring situations.

Accommodation is more likely if the initial hire is especially desirable

Desirability may be based on a person's national stature, research interests, background, or some other unique characteristic that appeals to the institution. Race and gender diversity is a common justification for dual-career hiring policies. Because some research has demonstrated that minorities with doctorates are more likely to be members of dual-career academic couples than are whites, these policies have the potential to help diversify the faculty (Astin and Milem, 1997; Smith et al., 1996). Furthermore, since many science departments are dominated by men, and since many female scientists are married to other scientists, partner hiring offers an opportunity to diversify some science faculties.

Our case-study research, however, does not demonstrate that these goals are being achieved. Hiring a heterosexual dual-career couple brings in both a male and a female faculty member; in percentage terms, then, the effect on faculty diversity is diluted. Moreover, at our case study sites, the vast majority of dual-career accommodations were made for whites rather than for racial or ethnic minorities. Our findings were somewhat at odds with those of others who have concluded that dual-career policies do, indeed, help recruit minority faculty members (Loeb, 1997; Smith et al., 1996).

Approaches to partner accommodations vary

Six broad approaches are currently being used to help partners of academics find suitable employment. First, the college or university may create a relocation office or use on-campus facilities to help a partner find work in the region and to help the couple adjust to the new community. Second, an institution may develop either a formal or ad-hoc policy to hire the partner for a part-time, adjunct, or non-tenure-track faculty position. Third, it can hire a partner into an administrative position. Fourth, an institution may create a shared position in which the initial hire and his or her partner share a single academic line. Fifth, nearby institutions may advertise positions jointly, increasing the odds that two positions can be found in the same geographic area. Sixth, in relatively rare situations (usually at large research universities) the institution may create a tenure track position for a partner.

Some aspects of dual-career accommodation are of particular concern

An important characteristic of institutions with successful dual-career policies is that they have made little of the problems and, instead, focused on the possibilities. Still, problems, or at least the potential for problems, exist in five areas: fairness, legality, faculty quality, tension between departmental needs and partner hires, and faculty autonomy in the hiring process.

Fairness. Should couples be given special consideration? Will doing so discriminate against applicants who happen to be single or whose partners don't have special employment needs? Institutions that have successful dual-career policies believe that they are fair, and they often deal with questions about fairness by adopting a clear policy and carrying it out t openly and evenly. Further, they recognize that the increasing numbers of women and dual-career couples may require new formulations of what it means to be fair. In short, although concerns about fairness are legitimate, the issue is not as black and white as some would have us believe. It is up to each individual institution to decide what is fair and to reconcile its approach to dual-career accommodations with its own notion of fairness.

Legality. Is dual-career accommodation a form of nepotism? Does such accommodation jibe with affirmative action guidelines and regulations? We and other scholars who have studied this issue (Shoben, 1997) have found no explicit legal challenges to dual-career accommodation policies. As long as the application of the policy does not discriminate against individuals based on gender, race, ethnicity, disability, age, religion, or veteran status, it would appear to be legal. Nevertheless, administrators would be wise to consult with the university's attorney as well as the Equal Opportunity Office, to ensure that their policy is in line with all relevant statutes.

Faculty quality. It is widely believed that when accommodations are made, one member of the accommodated couple will be less qualified than his or her partner, as well as other candidates who might be identified in a traditional search. This concern is greater in the relatively rare case in which a tenure-track position is created for a partner than with the other forms of accommodation.

Institutions with dual-career policies insist that the only way to make such accommodations viable from an institutional standpoint is to ensure that those doing the hiring pay careful attention to quality. Their policies make explicit the necessity of reviewing the experiences and backgrounds of all potential hires, including those introduced through a dual-career policy, and having the faculty and administrators involved vote on whether the candidate meets the criteria necessary for the position. Failing to do this could, indeed, compromise quality.

Future needs and long-range planning. Institutions must consider the effect that hiring a partner may have on present and future personnel needs. Partners of academics are not randomly distributed across disciplines, and it is likely that some departments may be asked to accommodate them more frequently. Failing to consider the present and future needs of the department in implementing partner-hiring policies, as well as of the institution more broadly, may affect the character of the department and its programs. It is essential that departments, schools, and the university pay attention to their future faculty needs when they consider hiring a partner into a faculty position. This may require that academic units engage in planning to anticipate future needs.

Faculty autonomy. Here, the concerns over faculty quality and autonomy merge. It is widely believed that faculty, instead of administrators or other parties, are best able to judge the merits of prospective colleagues. Hence, control over hiring legitimately belongs to faculty. Dual-career accommodation policies ought to give the faculty of the department involved in hiring a partner a say--perhaps the final say--in whether to make the hire. Hiring of faculty colleagues is a crucial part of faculty governance that ought to be continued, especially in the case of policies that involve hiring through other than regular means.

Concluding comments

We believe it is important for academic institutions to acknowledge the growing number of academic couples vying for faculty positions. This is a trend that will continue; and, for most institutions, especially those in isolated regions, remaining competitive for the best faculty is likely to require some type of institutional response. That is not to say that every institution must implement a full-scale dual-career accommodation policy, or that all dual-career couples will be accommodated as they may desire. Institutions ought to consider culture, size, resources, location, and other specific characteristics to determine the most appropriate response.

The parallel between the needs of dual-career couples and the problem as described by physicists is striking. In physics, the two-body problem is relatively easy to solve. If there were only two bodies involved, the problem of dual-career couples would also be relatively simple. There is, however, a third body: the hiring institution. As in physics, adding a third element--the institution and its needs--to the problem makes it much more difficult to solve. Indeed, in physics, the general problem of exactly determining the relative motion of three bodies has not yet been solved (Wolfram, 2002).

Lisa Wolf-Wendell can be contacted at


Astin, H. S., & Milem, J. F. (1997). The status of academic couples in U.S. institutions. In Ferber, M. A., & Loeb, J. W. (eds.) Academic Couples: Problems and Promises. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Loeb, J. W. (1997). Programs for academic partners: How well can they work. In Ferber, M. A., & Loeb, J. W. (eds.) Academic Couples: Problems and Promises. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Shoben, E. W. (1997). From anti-nepotism rules to programs for partners: Legal issues. In Ferber, M. A., & Loeb, J. W. (eds.) Academic Couples: Problems and Promises. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Smith, D., Wolf-Wendel, L, Busenberg, B., and associates (1996). Achieving Faculty Diversity: Debunking the Myths. Washington, DC: American Association of Colleges and Universities.

Thaller, M. (2002). A romance written in the stars. Retrieval date: 18 March 2003.

Wolfram, S. (2002). A New Kind of Science. Champaign, IL: Wolfram Media.

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