Evolving Roles for Presidential Spouses and Partners

By Karen F. Kaler, Gwendolyn H. Freed, and Darwin D. Hendel    //    Volume 26,  Number 4   //    September/October 2018

A generation ago, when college and university leaders were almost exclusively male, presidential wives began to question expectations thrust upon them by institutions and prevailing social norms. Diane Skomars Magrath, then “first lady” at the University of Minnesota, measured the role’s joys and frustrations in 1984 with a groundbreaking national survey of her peers. With co-author Joan Clodius, she published key findings, along with firstperson essays, in The President’s Spouse: Volunteer or Volunteered.

In 2016, that survey was updated and expanded in an effort to understand the ways in which today’s presidential partners experience, and think about, the role. The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), the Association of American Universities (AAU), the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), and the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) helped promote the new survey to members of their respective spouse and partner groups. A total of 461 partners (including 77 males) participated in both the qualitative and quantitative parts of the survey, making The Lives of Presidential Partners in Higher Education Institutions the largest known study of its kind to date.


Presidential candidates need not have spouses or partners, and partners of presidents need not be involved with the institutions. Partners want to be allowed to choose their level of involvement without being judged. While partners may not ultimately be involved on campus, the survey found that nearly three-quarters of all partners—76 percent of females and 56 percent of males—participated in formal or informal interviews during the presidential search process.

While only 17 percent of respondents reported that the president’s contract or employment letter mentioned the partner role, it clearly is a factor for some presidents when considering a job offer. Nearly one-quarter of participants agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I believe that on at least one occasion, an institution’s expectations regarding my role as spouse/partner have been a significant factor in my spouse/partner’s decision to accept, decline, or step down from a president/ chancellor position.”


Many spouses and partners find that early days in the role are among the most difficult. More than half of the survey respondents said that schedule demands were their greatest initial challenge. Many reported problems with moving and settling in:

“I had to give up everything I loved in order for my wife to take the role. We sold land and property, left the mountains, and I was unemployed for months. After two years, I’m still struggling.”

“I just never anticipated that this move and our new roles would put me into such an identity crisis. I really overestimated my ability to adapt to the losses inherent in him taking this presidency … as well as to adapt to all of the new people and experiences, while also feeling somewhat in the public eye. Although I have tried to clarify expectations for my role, they remain rather murky. And, even though that’s stressful, I do know that it’s a position of privilege and some influence, and I’m also grateful for the opportunity to be involved (to whatever extent) in such an important endeavor.”


The survey asked, “What could the institution have done to make the transition into the role of spouse/partner of the president/chancellor easier for you?” More than one-third of the partners who responded said they had no advice:

“Nothing. They were very supportive.”

“I think it’s just a difficult transition. I’m not sure if anything else could have or needed to be done by them.”

While these comments suggest that some institutions do a good job, a few partners implied that support was minimal to nonexistent. One partner commented, “At least they could have given me a campus tour.”

Partners expressed concerns about the lack of administrative support for their work. Comments included:

“[I need an] advancement officer assigned to work with me before and during events, providing background information and connections to board members and donors.”

“[I need] staff support: administrative support, development orientation to university community, notes from predecessor about their role/responsibilities, a ‘handler’ from development to help navigate events.”

“Instead of assuming I wanted the same help as the prior spouse/partner, it would have been helpful to ask me about my needs. Actually, it would be helpful to do this upon starting, but again a year later. It takes that long to understand the role and responsibilities.”

Partners mentioned the need for more information about the institution, the community, and the role, including how previous partners fulfilled it. They asked for mentors and support.

The survey respondents noted that the association partner groups provide helpful support and camaraderie. Partners explained:

“The spouse/partner program … [provides] excellent workshops for spouses at conferences to help each of us explore ways to fulfill our roles in ways that are congruent with our needs, interests, and abilities.”

“Join a spouse group at the appropriate national organization of universities to which your university belongs and always go and participate (learn from others, share).”


While presidential partner is an unpaid role for most survey participants (12 percent reported being paid for their work), only 5 percent reported having no responsibilities. While many partners expressed enjoyment of the role’s flexibility, the most frequent advice for institutions concerned the need for clarity of expectations:

“Acknowledge that the spouse does have a role and attempt to identify the ways in which he/she can be included. Communicate with the spouse to determine how he/she perceives his/her role and ways in which he/she will be supported in the role.”

“There is so much that is ‘unsaid’ about this role—by necessity, I guess, because it is unpaid, and yet there are expectations that you will be there supporting your spouse as much as possible…. If institutions want modern spouses to be able to do this successfully, to reduce the stress, they should (1) clearly list the expectations in the role, (2) provide resources and staff support, and (3) be sure that the spouse is always kept in the loop about plans, changes of plans, etc., rather than ‘forgotten’ in the crush of events and yet expected to somehow always be there, being supportive and positive, even though it’s clear that the system has neglected you, your ‘role,’ and your contributions (current and past).”

When asked an open-ended question about the advice they would offer to those new in the role, respondents’ most frequent response category was seeking and establishing clarity of expectations:

“Ask questions about the institution’s expectations of you before your spouse takes the job because you are both taking this job.”

“Take control of your own position and be a major part of determining exactly what your role is or may evolve into. Unless you are accepting a paycheck with outlined duties, I feel it is up to the spouse, and to a lesser degree, the president, to determine what the role of the spouse will be…. I also believe that the role changes as the tenure changes.”

Knowing that the partner role can be ambiguous, the survey asked seven questions regarding role clarity. Responses ranged from only 25 percent of respondents agreeing or strongly agreeing that their responsibilities were clarified prior to the role, to 92 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing that they and their spouses have a common understanding of the role. The survey included an index of overall clarity and found a statistically significant positive association between role clarity and satisfaction.


In developing a transition plan for a new leader, the board should consider whether the president has a spouse or partner. A member of the board might establish an open line of communication, meeting the partner to discuss his or her interest and preferences for the role. Boards should be aware that they cannot have “job requirements” for an unpaid role. Nonetheless, many partners expressed frustration with not knowing what the unwritten expectations were for them. Some partners expressed frustration with expectations that they would serve in unpaid roles they did not desire; others were frustrated that they wanted to serve the institution and were not supported in doing so. Communication is key.

Partners further commented that the role changes during a president’s tenure, as do the partner’s needs and desires. The dialogue could continue, for example, with annual meetings to discuss how the institution can help the partner in his or her role. This dialogue should recognize that the partner may choose not to be involved and should be able to do so without judgment by the administration.


Boards’ consideration of various supports or simple courtesies also would be helpful. These could include business cards, campus mail, campus parking, paid admission to campus events that partners attend in an official capacity, travel expenses for university business with or without the president, registration and travel to association meetings, administrative support for scheduling, briefings by development staff before and/or after events and donor meetings, cleaning and yardwork at the official residence, and cleaning before and after university events held at the president’s private home.

Most partners are unpaid for the work they do for their institutions, and 50 percent of the survey respondents said they changed employment as a result of their spouses/partners becoming president. Of those who changed employment, 54 percent went from fulltime work to being unemployed, with 61 percent of females and 22 percent of males saying they were not employed outside their institutions. Significantly more females than males changed their employment as a result of assuming the partner’s role. While many partners stated they were happy to volunteer their time to benefit their institutions, they expressed frustration about “paying to work”—for example, having to purchase event tickets or cover parking fees.


Although the survey did not ask about transitioning out of the role, several partners commented about related challenges or disappointments. One participant wrote about experience in the role at a previous institution:

“Exit interview would have been helpful and appreciated. Role as former president and first lady recognized and honored would be appropriate and appreciated. Very displeased with this board and the transition leaving the university.”

A partner of a retired president commented:

“Boards should recognize that the positive reputation of the university is at stake when presidents transition in and out, particularly out. Boards should not underestimate the regard and affection that the community has for the president and the president’s spouse. If the presidential couple is not treated well, there is a certain level of embarrassment in the community.”


The survey found that a higher level of involvement in the role was related to greater satisfaction, as well as greater frustration. When asked, “Overall, how satisfied are you with your current role and responsibilities associated with being the president/chancellor’s spouse/ partner?” partners overwhelmingly (84 percent) stated they were satisfied, very satisfied, or extremely satisfied. Most like the role; many love it. Despite the fact that they can, and often do, struggle with the role’s ambiguity and high demands, partners voiced a high level of overall satisfaction. This is especially true for those who feel appreciated.

What Boards Can Do

While partners come from a range of backgrounds and circumstances, their aggregate responses to the survey point to some general best practices for trustees to consider:

  • Talk with partners about the role and be prepared to listen.
  • Choice is important. Some partners may seek institutional guidelines while others may want to shape the role to suit their interests and availability.
  • Allow for the partner’s non-involvement, without judgment of the partner or president.
  • Continue the dialogue; circumstances and preferences may change.
  • Take each partner on his or her own terms. One size does not fit all.
  • Guard against making gender-based assumptions, and be mindful of the direct and indirect ways of communicating biased expectations.
  • Recognize, appreciate, and thank partners who choose and are able to serve the institution.

Defining Moment
Clarity about role begins with search

When Hanns Kuttner, husband of Chancellor Rebecca Blank of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, arrived on campus five years ago, he assumed the role of presidential spouse with no expectations and an open mind. Like so many partners transitioning into their new role, he received little support or guidance from the institution. “No one said anything to me,” he said.

In fact, the only help Kuttner received came from his predecessor, Judith Ward. Over lunch she shared advice and described the experiences of presidential spouses at Wisconsin from the past generation. This knowledge transfer was “the totality of my onboarding,” Kuttner said.

While at many institutions the role of presidential partner has remained demanding over time, the treatment of spouses and the related onboarding process remain largely unchanged. In Joan Clodius and Diane Skomars Magrath’s 1984 study of presidential partners, The President’s Spouse: Volunteer or Volunteered, 88 percent of spouses surveyed said not a single person at the institution explained what was expected of them or their responsibilities.

In speaking with presidential partners and sharing similar concerns, Kuttner thinks institutions and boards should consider what is desired in a presidential partner beginning with the search process. His idea is for search committees to create a standard disclosure form about the position, forcing institutions to express their expectations for the role. In his view, “there’s nothing ever said about a spouse partner in any of the what-we-are-looking-for documents.”

Although Kuttner believes the institution and certain campus units had expectations for his role, they simply chose not to express them. He therefore took it upon himself to speak with campus staff and ask questions to clarify their expectations. He advises those entering the role to take a similar approach. “If the institution doesn’t proactively reach out to you about expectations, realize that you then have a duty to find out what these expectations are.”

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