Behind Every Good Leader: How Higher Education Institutions Disclose Information about the Presidential Spouse

Elisabeth D McNaughtan, Jon L. McNaughtan
Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education  •  Volume 3  •  2018  •  pp. 135-153

Using the lens of critical theory, the authors of this study analyzed if institutions of varying institutional type acknowledged the role of the presidents’ spouses in presidential biographies and press releases. The purpose of this investigation was to establish to what extent institutions are transparent about the involvement of the presidential spouse.

Spouses of high profile leaders, including a university president’s spouse, are often expected to fill time-consuming roles for their spouses’ positions. Past research has found that spouses vary widely in their feelings towards this informal, yet oft-expected, role. While some thrive in the role, others feel taken for granted performing free work with little recognition or personal benefit.

Using a random stratified sample of current presidents at four types of institutions, a content analysis was performed on 200 presidential biographies and corresponding press releases announcing new presidents. Nominal data was collected and compared to existing data to illustrate in what manner and in what frequency institutions disclosed information about presidents’ spouses.

While the aspects of the spouse’s role at a university have been researched from the spouse’s perspective and the president’s perspective, the authors researched the role from an organizational perspective. Identifying how the spouse was discussed in organizational mediums and comparing to existing data established a baseline for understanding to what extent institutions are transparent about spousal contributions.

The results of the content analysis indicate that organizational mediums mention spouses and their work at a low rate. There was also a difference between institutional types in how spouses are discussed, with two-year institutions discussing spouses the least. Additionally, spouses’ off-campus contributions were more likely to be mentioned than their on-campus contributions.

The findings give reason for practitioners to consider the institution’s transparency of a spouse’s work, and to begin considering this issue during the hiring stage. Hiring committees may need to investigate their institutional culture and what changes may be realistically implemented to create a more egalitarian atmosphere for the president’s spouse.

Realizing that there is a discrepancy between a spouse’s involvement on campus and disclosure of that involvement to campus constituents, researchers may investigate best practices in how spouses are involved on campus and in the community and how they are recognized for that work. Researchers should also be considerate of how these results may differ by institutional type and gender of the spouse.

Because high profile leaders and their spouses are perceived to lead a life of privilege, the possibility of negative power dynamics within the arrangement is often overlooked. However, highly visible couples should be empowered to set an equitable standard, and this research illuminates one area in which improvement may be considered.

Future inquiry could seek a more intentional quantitative and qualitative understanding as to how the dynamics of a spouse’s involvement, representation, expectations, and satisfaction differ by institutions type. Future inquiry could also analyze how spouses’ experiences and expectations in their formal and informal roles differ by gender.

college president, presidential spouse, content analysis, organizational commu-nication, critical theory
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