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No figure in higher education is surrounded with more ambiguity than the president's spouse. This person is implicitly regarded as an important player for the school but is rarely on the school's payroll (in some states, like Idaho, it's actually illegal for public institutions to employ the president's spouse). Especially if the spouse is a woman, she often takes a role related to the development and stewardship -- as hostess and organizer of special events. In almost all cases, the role of the president's partner is undefined, unspoken, and all-too-often unappreciated.

I suspect that within the seminary community, many see the president's spouse as a "pastor's wife." In the cash-strapped world of theological education, development officers take all the help they can get, and most are grateful when the spouse is on hand to help with, preside over, or coordinate receptions or dinners. In academic institutions, the president's partner is almost always involved with development-related functions (as an ambassador for the school) or as an unofficial private counselor to students or faculty members or their families. Spouses rarely have a role in operations or academics unless they themselves are official members of the faculty.

A new doctoral dissertation (available here) takes a close look at the roles that presidents' wives play in higher education development operations. The author, a development officer himself, summarizes his findings in a recent blog entitled "Career Advice for the Presidential Spouse," which is as much for trustees and development officers as it is for the spouses themselves. Among his suggestions: 

  • Always ask, don't assume. Because the role of the spouse is ill-defined, development staff must not assume what the spouse will or won't do. The author suggests that the spouse be involved early on, even as part of the presidential selection process, to help clarify the roles this person will play in the administration.
  • Assign a liaison. It may be helpful, the author says, to appoint one person (beyond the president's assistant) as an official liaison to the presidential spouse, so that the spouse's roles and responsibilities are managed carefully.  
  • Bring the outsider in. Living with the president makes the spouse the ultimate insider, but in terms of the life of the institution, the spouse is an outsider. Invite and involve the spouse in community events besides receptions and dinners, giving her (or him) a better feel for the institution's culture and expectations.
  • Say "thank you."  In many institutions, the presidential spouse works tirelessly but with precious little thanks. Trustees especially can remedy this. They have nothing to lose by heaping praise and adoration on the president's spouse.

The role of the presidential spouse can be tricky to finesse for staff and trustees alike, but the first step is simply paying attention to the relationships of this important figure in the life of your school.

Read the blog post called "Career Advice for the Presidential Spouse" here.


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