The Role of the Presidential Spouse/Partner

The Role of the Presidential Spouse/Partner

Since 2008, David G. Horner has been president and S. Sue Horner has been Scholar in Residence, Gender Studies and Religion, at The American College of Greece (Athens). They are in their 28th year as a presidential couple.

Since 1980, we have attended almost every year of the annual Presidents Institute of the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC). Over the years, Sue has participated in innumerable presentations and discussions at this conference on the role of the presidential spouse/partner, a topic of both personal and professional interest to her, given her academic focus on gender studies. The January 2012 conference included a report on the results of a collaborative research project, designed and conducted in the fall of 2011 by CIC and ML Strategies (Boston, Mass. and Washington, D.C.). Raymond D. Cotton, vice president of higher education for ML Strategies, reported the survey results at the conference. According to the CIC/ML Strategies survey (97 institutional responses):

  • 66 percent of reporting spouses/partners are considered employees of the institution
  • 67 percent of spouses/partners devote more than 25 percent 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)

Formal and informal conversations at the conference confirmed yet again that little consensus has been achieved over how to best approach the presidential spouse/partner role in U.S. colleges and universities, although current incumbents in the role reflect a different pattern (e.g., same-sex partners and more male spouses) than when we first began attending the conference. One manifestation of the lack of consensus related to the spouse/partner role is the range of titles used by institutions to name the role. The following are just some of the titles revealed in the CIC/ML Strategies and related research:

  • 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

Not only do institutions, presidents, and spouses/partners struggle with this issue, but the conference conversation also made clear that the presidential spouse/partner role remains problematic for many boards as well. Board members may not voice such questions, but at least some surely wonder:

  • Why should the institution pay the spouse/partner 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 spouse role be formally recognized and/or compensated?
  • Given what we pay the president, shouldn’t that cover the spouses’ contributions as well?
  • How will the work of the spouse/partner be supervised? Where’s the accountability? If we don’t like what the spouse/partner does, then what – we can’t really fire her/him can we?

We hope the following suggestions will be helpful to boards, presidents and spouses/partners as they navigate this thorny and enduring governance issue—one we have lived and seen others live for almost thirty years.

Foundation Points

Unique spouse/partner role. Colleges and universities are constituency, event, and philanthropy-intensive contexts in which many presidential spouses/partners function similarly to development or constituency relations staff in the planning and execution of important relationship-building experiences. In many institutions, even if not officially recognized, such a role is both traditional and expected, with the demands in time and energy exceeding typical requirements of spouses/partners in other leadership contexts. As cited above, in the research reported at the CIC conference, 67 percent of presidential spouses/partners invest at least 25 percent of their time in role-related activities, with 35 percent devoting between 25 percent to 50 percent and 32 percent more than 50 percent of their time to such work on behalf of the institution.

Unique institutional cultures. Institutional diversity (e.g. size; public, private, religious, non-profit, for-profit; urban, suburban, rural) is one of the core characteristics of the American higher education system. This diversity produces enormous variety in institutional cultures, which, in turn, produces divergent sets of expectations and possibilities for the spouse/partner role. For example, we have served three different colleges/universities as president and presidential spouse; in each institution, the spouse/partner role (both past patterns and current expectations) was substantially different. The right spouse/partner role “fit” for one institution, therefore, may well be the absolutely wrong “fit” for another.

Unique presidential couples. Presidential couples are also unique. Some spouses/partners are comfortable in public roles; others are not. Some spouses/partners have full-time employment outside the institution and simply are not available to invest significant time in the institutional spouse/partner role. Some spouses/partners have a background in a professional role (e.g., faculty, administrator) in a college or university and seek ways to utilize this experience to define and/or to complement the spouse/partner role. To some degree, then, the presidential spouse/partner role needs to fit not only the institution (i.e., its culture and expectations) but also the presidential couple (i.e. their credentials, background, and preferences).

No common practice. Given the “triple uniqueness” outlined above, it is not surprising that institutional patterns and practices related to presidential spouses/partners vary widely, including:

  • Presidents without spouses/partners
  • Spouses/partners who have no active role in the institution
  • Spouses/partners who are actively engaged, but as volunteers in the institution
  • Spouses/partners who are actively engaged in the institution and are compensated but for duties other than presidential spouse/partner duties
  • Spouses/partners who are compensated as part-time employees in the presidential spouse/partner role
  • Spouses/partners who are compensated both as presidential spouses/partners and in other capacities at the institution
  • Spouses/partners who are compensated full-time in the presidential spouse/partner role

Such diversity reflects different understandings of the role by boards as well as different institutional expectations and cultures and different presidential couple credentials, backgrounds, and preferences.

Institutional, not personal. The language of “presidential spouse/partner” contributes to confusion concerning the nature of the role and the appropriate institutional considerations in recognition of the role, because it tends to imply that institutional recognition is being given for a personal relationship (i.e., spouse/partner). Our view is that institutional recognition should be considered not because an individual is the spouse/partner of an institutional president and in that personal role “supports” the president as their spouse. Rather, we believe institutional recognition (e.g., salary) is appropriate only in recognition of institution-serving activities. Such activities associated with an institutionally defined presidential spouse/partner role may vary widely depending on institutional needs and personal skills/background, but these activities do not belong to the personal sphere of the relationship between the president and the spouse/partner. Rather, they are tied to the mission, strategy, and operational tasks of the institution; they enhance institutional effectiveness and produce institutional benefits.

Good governance. Structuring the presidential spouse/partner role appropriately according to good governance principles is challenging. Sometimes spouses/partners serve in part-time or full-time “traditional” organizational roles (e.g., faculty, staff, administration). In such cases good governance requires that those who supervise the president’s spouse are free to exercise normal protocols of accountability. To the extent that the spouse/partner role entails duties associated directly with the activities of the president’s office (e.g., constituency relations, development), a different approach to accountability is required. One possibility is to include the spouse’s activities as part of a president’s annual self-evaluation report to the board. In both cases (traditional organizational role and role tied to the office of the president), the president has a duty to assure that the spouse/partner role is consistent with policies approved by the board and supportive of the overall organizational culture of the institution.

Implications/Recommendations

Focus on ends and be flexible. Institutions (i.e., boards) should be open to a range of possible spouse/partner models depending on different presidential/presidential couple skill sets and preferences, as well as institutional priorities. To insist on particular approaches will limit the appeal of the president’s position and/or fail to motivate the best presidential/presidential couple performance. Optimizing institutional effectiveness and fairness for both the institution and the presidential couple should be the goals. At different times with different presidents and different spouses/partners different approaches will likely be needed to meet these goals.

Be transparent. It is in everyone’s interest for as much clarity as possible to exist with respect to the spouse/partner role. An agreed-upon position description for the spouse/partner, shared with the board and supplemented by annual reports, as suggested above, should provide the necessary level of transparency. The position description should also specify that the presidential spouse/partner role is coterminous with the presidential appointment.

Expect evolution. New presidents and spouses/partners are typically not ideally positioned to negotiate the spouse/partner role, because unless the presidential couple emerges from within the institution, they are not likely to perceive fully the institutional culture (i.e., spouse/partner expectations) within which they will be functioning. Nor are they likely to understand fully the activities in which the spouse/partner will be most effective in this new setting. Therefore, while initial discussion about the spouse/partner role is desirable at the time of initial appointment, both the board and the presidential couple will be better positioned to fashion the role following some specific institutional experience. Therefore, evolution of the role should be expected during the term of the presidential appointment.

Recognition matters. While many things have changed over the years at the CIC Presidents Institute, one thing has remained the same—the testimony of spouses in their annual open dialogue session that their roles within institutions are time- and energy-consumptive in ways that few people see or appreciate. One aspect of caring for and safeguarding the wellbeing of the president (one of the board’s highest priorities) should be the monitoring of the president and spouse/partner relationship (their professional relationship). Demonstrating concern for the efficacy of this relationship and interest in and appreciation for the institutional contributions of the spouse/partner is one important way of fulfilling this board responsibility.

Symbols, substance, and practical considerations. The CIC/ML Strategies research findings document the time and energy devoted by presidential spouses/partners to institution-serving activities. The “opportunity costs” (i.e., forgoing the opportunity for alternative, income producing, and career-building activity) may also be substantial for many spouses/partners. Fairness suggests that the contributions and investment of time and energy of presidential spouses/partners on behalf of institutions be recognized appropriately. For some spouses/partners, such recognition may entail compensation commensurate with the time devoted to the institutional cause. For others, more symbolic compensation may suffice. In any case, straightforward discussion and agreement with the board on an appropriate arrangement related to monetary consideration and other benefits not only is important, but given IRS regulations regarding establishment of the reasonableness of presidential compensation, board review and approval of any spouse/partner compensation arrangements is essential.

The role of presidential spouse/partner is changing. While there is no uniform model for this role in American colleges and universities, boards would well be advised to attend carefully and creatively to structuring a role, based in good governance principles, that fits both the institution and the individuals involved. Such thoughtful attention will serve well the interests of institutions, presidents, and presidential spouses/partners.


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