Does the Presidential Spouse Have a Role? Should the Role Be Compensated?

By David G Horner and David A. Williams    //    Volume 21,  Number 2   //    March/April 2013

The question of whether the presidential spouse should be compensated is one on which it seems everyone has an opinion. Trusteeship magazine asked two such people with differing views to weigh in. (Note that the use of the term “spouse” is also meant to include “partner.”)

Should the college/university president’s spouse be paid for the services he/she provides to the institution?

Sometimes yes. Here’s why.

The role of the presidential spouse (and in recent years, the presidential partner) has been a frequent topic of discussion both in my 28 years as a president at three different institutions and in my three years of academic executive search work. It is a topic that is not without controversy, and little consensus has been achieved about how best to approach such a role at American colleges and universities.

Institutional approaches to defining and compensating the role of the presidential spouse continue to evolve and to reflect divergent points of view. According to a study conducted in the fall of 2011 by the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and ML Strategies:

  • 66 percent of reporting spouses/partners are considered employees of the institution;
  • 67 percent of spouses/partners devote more than one-quarter of their time to institutional activities related to their spouse/partner role;
  • 23 percent of spouses/partners receive institutional compensation for the presidential spouse/partner role, with the range of compensation being $6,000 to $55,000 (median $20,000; mean $23,000).

One manifestation of the lack of consensus about the role of the presidential spouse is the range of titles used to name that person. To cite just a few:

  • First Lady/Gentleman
  • Associate to the Board of Trustees
  • University Ambassador
  • Special Assistant to the President/ Chancellor
  • Senior Advisor for Institutional Advancement
  • Senior Counselor for External Relations

In my capacities both as a president and as a search consultant working with boards, board members have expressed to me their reservations and questions such as:

  • Why should the institution pay the spouse to support the president; don’t all spouses do that?
  • Other spouses (e.g., spouses of ministers, politicians, and CEOs) are expected to perform voluntary functions and appear at events; why should this particular spousal role be formally recognized and/or compensated?
  • Given what we pay the president, shouldn’t that cover the spouse’s contributions as well?
  • How will the work of the spouse be supervised? Where’s the accountability? If we don’t like what the spouse does, then what? We can’t really fire her/him, can we?

My thoughts and recommendations related to this topic have been informed by discussions with many people—board members, institutional presidents, spouses, and others—over more than 30 years. My spouse’s personal and professional perspectives have also shaped my thinking significantly, given her academic focus on gender studies. I’ve concluded that the most salient points that should inform an institution’s and its board’s expectations and position on this matter are:

1. The focus should be on the institution, not the person. The language of “presidential spouse” or “presidential partner” contributes to confusion concerning the role because it implies a personal rather than an institutional relationship. Institutional recognition of the role is appropriate not because he or she is the spouse or partner of an institutional president (and in that personal role “supports” the president), but rather because it involves activities that are tied to the mission and strategy of the institution, that enhance institutional effectiveness, and that produce institutional benefits.

2. The spouse plays a distinct role. Colleges and universities are constituency-, event-, and philanthropy-intensive, with many presidential spouses functioning similarly to development or constituency relations staff in the planning and execution of important relationship-building activities. Spouses often act as “ambassadors” for the institution. At many colleges and universities, such a role, even if not officially recognized, is both traditional and expected, with the demands in time and energy exceeding typical requirements of spouses in other leadership contexts.

3. Institutional cultures are all different. The diversity of American higher education produces enormous variety in institutional cultures that in turn produce divergent sets of expectations and possibilities for the spouse role. The right “fit” for one institution, therefore, may well be the absolute wrong “fit” for another.

4. No two presidential couples are the same. Some spouses are comfortable in public roles; others are not. Some have full-time employment outside the institution. Others have a background in a professional role (e.g., faculty member, administrator) at a college or university and seek ways to use that experience to define or complement the spouse role.

5. It’s best to remain flexible. Institutions and their boards should be open to a range of possible models depending on the couple’s skill sets and preferences as well as institutional priorities. To insist on particular approaches will limit the appeal of the president’s position and fail to motivate the best performance of the president and his or her spouse. The goal should be optimizing institutional effectiveness and fairness for both the institution and the presidential couple. At different times with different presidents and different spouses, different approaches should be considered.

6. Good governance is key. Sometimes spouses serve in part-time or full-time organizational roles as faculty members or administrators. In such cases, good governance requires that those who supervise the president’s spouse be free to exercise normal protocols of accountability. To the extent that the spouse role entails duties associated directly with the activities of the president’s office—for example, constituency relations or development—a different approach to accountability is required. One possibility is to include his or her activities as part of a president’s annual self-evaluation report to the board. In any case, the president has a duty to ensure that the spouse role is consistent with policies approved by the board and supportive of the overall organizational culture of the institution.

7. Transparency is vital. It is in everyone’s interest that as much clarity as possible exists with respect to the spouse role. An agreed-upon position description, shared with the board and supplemented by annual reports, as suggested above, should provide the necessary level of transparency. That description should also specify that the presidential spouse role is coterminous with the president’s appointment.

8. Symbols, substance, and practical considerations must be considered. Fairness suggests that the contributions and investment of time and energy of presidential spouses on behalf of institutions be recognized appropriately. For some, such recognition may entail financial compensation. Yet for others, more symbolic compensation may suffice. Such matters should be resolved through discussion with the board, including appropriate benchmarking for any arrangements related to monetary and other material considerations. Given IRS regulations regarding establishment of the reasonableness of presidential compensation, the board should review and approve any compensation arrangements for the spouse.

9. Evolution is to be expected. Unless the couple emerges from within the institution, they are not likely to perceive fully the institutional culture within or the expectations under which they will be functioning. Nor are they likely to anticipate the activities in which the spouse will be most effective in this new setting. Therefore, while initial discussion about the spouse’s role is desirable at the time of initial appointment, both the board and the presidential couple will be better positioned to fashion the role later in the president’s term after some more experience.

10. Recognition matters in any case. Whether or not the spouse has a title or receives financial compensation, a key aspect of caring for and safeguarding the well-being of the president—one of the board’s highest priorities—should be the monitoring of the professional relationship of the president and his or her spouse. Demonstrating concern for the efficacy of this relationship and an appreciation for the institutional contributions of the spouse is one important, but easily overlooked, way of fulfilling that important board responsibility.

There is no uniform model for the presidential spouse or partner role in American colleges and universities. But boards would be well advised to attend carefully and creatively to structuring a role, based on good governance principles, that fits both the institution and the people involved. Such thoughtful attention will serve not only the interests of the presidential couple but also the institution itself.

David G. Horner

Should the college/university president’s spouse be paid for the services he/she provides to the institution?

Almost always no. Here’s why.

I have been a presidential spouse for more than 20 years. I taught law-related courses at the graduate and undergraduate level for more than two decades, but never at either of the two colleges—one public, one independent—where my wife was serving as president. Although I knew that some of my fellow presidential spouses were being compensated for their college/university-related efforts, I neither sought nor received compensation. This is not to say that I did not provide useful services and incur substantial expenses that ultimately benefited the two colleges. And I traveled literally hundreds of thousands of miles (at my own expense) to participate in community-relations, hosting, and development activities familiar to every presidential spouse.

I also attended numerous conferences sponsored by several presidential associations and specifically the spouse sessions, at which the common complaints of presidential spouses were aired—frankly, and, at times, emotionally. This is where the truth is told—where presidential spouses let their hair down and tell each other how they feel about their lives. A majority are not happy. Many feel they are not respected. Some feel they are hated.

Let’s look at some of the roles presidential spouses fill. The most basic is that of hostess or host to the college or university, welcoming and entertaining visitors and guests. This is usually done in service to the college or university’s development objectives. In the community-relations role, the spouse works to create a welcoming atmosphere for students, faculty, staff, and the external community. Other roles include program director, faculty member, staff member, and occasionally special advisor to the board of trustees.

There are two main paths to these roles. One is created by the traditions of the particular institution. Many colleges and universities have historical expectations of the presidential spouse, based on years of experience through many presidencies. The spouse may be expected to run the president’s house, to participate in various development events, to attend on- and off-campus events, and to be an internal and external extension of the president. The scope of these activities may simply, like Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, have “growed,” over many decades.

Although it has been suggested that the scope of the presidential spouse’s duties is unique to each institution/spouse (and therefore fluid), I believe the responsibility for the definition and management of the presidential spouse’s “duties” rests squarely with the board of trustees. I say this, in part, because when problems with the president’s spouse arise, it is the board that has to deal with the public relations fallout.

The second path I call the “squeegee man” path. In the absence of governing policy, a new and assertive presidential spouse defines his or her own role, which is then accepted by the institution. Often, the president’s house serves as the entering wedge. Since the presidential spouse lives in the house, event scheduling must go through her or him. It is a short step from event scheduling to event planning to staff supervision and the spending of institutional funds. When this happens, the board should adopt a policy that addresses the spouse’s authority and obligations. For reasons set out below, I believe such a policy should substantially limit the spouse’s authority.

Whichever path she/he takes, the new presidential spouse usually sees herself or himself as a volunteer, content with broad-based campus and community recognition and some personal affirmation—in short, respect. For the spouse whose duties are dictated by campus traditions, when recognition and affirmation are not adequately forthcoming or when the demands of the role become overwhelming, the now more-experienced spouse’s thoughts shift from “being a volunteer” to “being an employee.”

For the “squeegee man” spouse, the transition from volunteer to employee happens much more quickly. Gone is the quaint notion that the spouse has a “role” at the institution, replaced with the certainty of having a “job” there. The “role” is compensated with polite applause and flowers. The “job” is compensated with cold, hard cash (and benefits).

Whether the new presidential spouse achieves power because of institutional traditions or personal initiative, the college/university community sees the empowering of the spouse for what it is—nepotism. There are presidential spouses whose intelligence, wit, grace, and generosity of spirit can make everyone at the institution oblivious to the fact that any authority possessed by the spouse derives from a flagrant exercise of nepotism. Unfortunately, many other presidential spouses are not so gifted, or fortunate.

No matter the path, the spouse’s sole and determinative qualifying credential is her/his relationship with the president. No one else in the world qualifies for this job/role. Other institutional employees were hired as the result of competitive job searches: not so the presidential spouse. Other employees have legitimate job descriptions, are subject to recurring evaluation and continuing supervision, and can be disciplined or discharged for poor performance: again, not so the presidential spouse. Suggestions that a presidential spouse could be legitimately supervised or disciplined by other college personnel, the board, or the president simply do not square with experience. In a recent case, a president with an allegedly ill-behaving wife actually left the university he was leading, leaving the wife behind—as tenured faculty.

So long as the presidential spouse can keep the rank and file (and the broader community) happy, all is well. However, if she or he makes a controversial personnel decision regarding an employee over whom he or she has supervisory authority (real or imagined), or if some expenditure of institutional funds on a questionable project can be associated with the presidential spouse (or his/her influence), there will be hell to pay—and the board will get to pick up the tab.

In short, situations in which the institution pays a presidential spouse should be extremely rare, such as when the president’s spouse is an academic of surpassing excellence. Much more often, however, the presidential spouse is precisely that: the spouse or partner of the president. Like any spouse worthy of the relationship, she or he provides the president with counsel, conscience, and a listening ear—all duties presumably performed before moving into the presidential mansion and after the klieg lights have been turned off, post-presidency. The service the presidential spouse provides is invaluable and unique, but it is not an extension of the college or university.

Some suggest that, in the end, the institution receives a benefit from the spouse’s ministrations to the president, so why shouldn’t it pay for those ministrations? I reply that the party who benefits directly should pay the presidential spouse—and in this case, that is the president. Whether that payment takes the form of exquisitely expressed gratitude, a trip to Paris, or cash is their business. However, if the payment is cash, that cash should not come directly from an institutional account. If the trip to Paris is the compensation, the institution should not be picking up the spouse’s tab.

The reality is that the presidential spouse was doing something important before the president became the president and could just continue to do that, be it tax preparation, homemaking, or neurosurgery. In doing that, the spouse would continue to serve as the president’s conscience, attend campus events that are of interest, enjoy events at the president’s house that were planned and executed by regular college employees, and avoid the criticisms that often find their way to the presidential spouse’s mind on sleepless nights.

So here’s the board’s dilemma: If it permits the presidential spouse to act as an unpaid volunteer with a set of unavoidable responsibilities (or requires the same), it is tolerating (or creating) a situation which is probably illegal, definitely unethical, and politically unwise. If the board decides to pay the spouse for a defined set of services, college or university employees who were already leery of the spouse’s special status will become hypervigilant and hypercritical of that person as he/she executes his/her charge. It is precisely the leeriness, hyper vigilance, and hyper criticality that many spouses experience as a lack of respect at best and hatred at worst. Happy is the presidential spouse who is considered a welcome guest of the college or university, respected for his or her contributions to the community and for her or his support and encouragement of the president—period.

Almost 40 years ago, Marguerite Walker Corbally, in her book The Partners: Sharing the Life of a College President (Interstate Printers and Publishers, 1977), surveyed presidential spouses in an attempt to assess how a wide sample felt about their roles. One unnamed respondent said, “Presidents’ spouses are individuals with hopes, aspirations, and often careers of their own … Boards of Trustees and selection committees should arrive at their choice of president without regard to marital status of candidates or the professions of their spouses. It may be a long time coming, but I predict the role of the president’s wife will go the way of the dinosaur.” (Emphasis added.)

Effecting ethical fairness, a legal environment, and an atmosphere of mutual respect among citizens of the college or university is the responsibility of the board. All boards should reexamine their policies and practices, eliminating expectations and duties for future presidential spouses and establishing a bright-line policy against compensating them—for the good of their institutions and the well-being of future presidents and their spouses.

David A. Williams

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