Cowan, left, Byington, McCluskey and graduate student Jared Woolstenhulme. (Photo
by Shelly Hanks, WSU Photo Services)
PULLMAN – The so-called two-body problem, when both partners in an academic couple are trying to find tenure-track appointments at the same institution, might just be a two-body opportunity, say WSU researchers.
The project’s principal investigator, economist Jill McCluskey, who experienced the two-body problem first hand, believes a better understanding of the economics of the issue could help WSU recruit, retain and promote faculty members who are both top tier and more diverse than the academy at large.

Consider: Previous studies in the U.S. have determined that as many as 40 percent of female faculty members and 35 percent of male faculty members are married to another academic. In the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, math) it’s even more likely that a female faculty member will be married to another academic.

In the 1970s only about 3 percent of faculty hires nationally involved dual hires, but in the first decade of the 21st century nearly 13 percent of hires involved academic couples.
In December McCluskey, a professor in the School of Economic Sciences, in collaboration with Ben Cowan, assistant professor in SES, and Tori Byington, director of graduate planning and assessment in the Graduate School, received a grant from the NSF ADVANCE project at WSU to evaluate the effectiveness of partner and spousal accommodation policies on recruitment, retention and promotion of academic women.
Spousal and partner accommodation policies can range from assisting spouses and partners in finding employment off campus to creating a tenure-stream faculty position for the spouse or partner. From the academic couple’s perspective, finding two tenure-stream positions in the same locality is usually the preferred option.
Dual career academic couples have been studied before, Byington said, but not in this way.
“While it has been reviewed in the sociological and education literature, I believe this is the first attempt to view it through an economic lens,” she said. “This perspective makes this study extremely interesting and timely.”
In particular, the research will explore the following hypotheses:
  • Faculty members who are part of a couple that was accommodated, on average, are more productive than faculty members who were not hired as part of a couple.
  • An increase in the number of academic couples who search for jobs with a partner diminishes the productivity gap between upper-tier institutions and middle-tier institutions that have partner accommodation policies and/or forces upper-tier institutions to raise their wage offers to faculty candidates.
  • Women hired jointly with a partner or spouse are more likely to be retained and promoted at that institution.
  • Universities with partner/spousal accommodation policies are more successful than universities without such policies at attracting and retaining female faculty, particularly in STEM fields.
The underlying assumption, McCluskey said, is that every university tries to maximize the quality of its faculty relative to budget constraints. While a single faculty candidate might make an employment decision based on salary and the quality of the hiring institution, candidates who are part of an academic couple are concerned with both of those issues, as well as finding jobs in same community.
“The intuition of this simple model suggests that middle-tier universities with partner accommodation flexibility may be able to shrink the quality gap with higher-tier institutions by leveraging couples’ desires to be together,” McCluskey writes.
As an example, say that the members of the couple get job offers from prestigious, but different, universities, such as University of Chicago and MIT. Both are great offers, but the couple can’t be together.
WSU can offer a tenure track position to one, and then through partner accommodation offer bridge funding that provides a second tenure track position to the other member of the couple. As a result, WSU can hire two high quality faculty members.
As part of the preliminary research in support of their grant application, McCluskey and her team used WSU data from 2009 to determine that women comprise about 25 percent of tenure-stream faculty in STEM disciplines and 33 percent of tenure-stream faculty across the university. Women comprised 42 percent of assistant faculty at WSU in 2009, 41 percent of associate professors and 20 percent of full professors.
One unexpected finding, McCluskey said, is that women who had attained the rank of full professor were more likely to be part of an academic couple.
The team also has submitted a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation for a larger project to investigate partner accommodation polices at universities across the country. They would do a detailed analysis of partner hiring practices at six universities that represent a mix of institutions, from rural to urban and private liberal arts to public land-grant.
McCluskey’s study will use information from existing databases, including the Higher Education Dual Career Network, as well as a survey of partner accommodation policies at colleges and universities across the country. In addition, McCluskey and her colleagues will collect individual level data at WSU and six other universities, including University of Iowa, Occidental College, Ohio State University, Kansas State University and Virginia Tech. The universities selected represent a diverse range, from public land-grant to private liberal arts and from urban to rural.

McCluskey was part of a dual hire in 1998 when her husband, professor Matt McCluskey, was recruited to the physics and astronomy department. At the time of their hiring, Matt was doing post doctoral research at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and Jill was completing her doctoral degree at UC Berkeley where the couple met.