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Dual careers worry academia

Scholarly couples are lured away

Stanford lured Caroline and Blair Hoxby from Harvard with generous offers. Stanford lured Caroline and Blair Hoxby from Harvard with generous offers.

Caroline and Blair Hoxby fell in love in college, not only with each other but with the scholarly life.

Devoted to both marriage and career, they spent 13 years commuting between their teaching jobs at Harvard and Yale, sometimes passing more hours commuting on darkened highways than sleeping.

Now, Stanford University is scooping up the 41-year-olds as a pair, a big blow to Harvard, since Caroline Hoxby is a star economist, favorite teacher, and Harvard's only tenured African-American professor in economics.

The dilemma of the dual-career academic couple is becoming a major worry, not only for scholarly couples but for universities trying to woo top candidates and keep their faculty from fleeing town. Professors say the main reason is that more women are refusing to make their careers secondary to those of their husbands, although there are no data available to prove it.

About a third of academics are married to other academics, one study found. When Stanford surveyed faculty who left the university or turned down job offers last year, it found the top reason was the dual-career problem. Some pairs, like the Hoxbys, put up with long distances for years, while others decide that one partner will take an inferior job, so they can be in the same place.

Blair Hoxby is a well-regarded scholar on John Milton and Renaissance theater, although not as famous as his wife. He left Yale for Harvard two years ago, but he had no guarantee of earning tenure there. Stanford, where they'll start teaching in the fall, made both of them generous, tenured offers.

Because good academic positions are so rare and likely to be scattered in rural outposts, finding two in close proximity is "like hoping lightning strikes twice in the same place," Caroline Hoxby said.

At the elite levels, this problem has sparked bouts of poaching by aggressive universities willing to hire couples. Stanford, the University of California at Los Angeles, and New York University have all lured Harvard stars in the last three years with offers for both husband and wife.

Some universities are experimenting with creative solutions. For example, one department may help pay for the spouse's salary in a different department. Universities, including Harvard, have started regional networks to help partners search for jobs.

Caroline Hoxby has made a big name with provocative work on the economics of education and gets unusually effusive raves from students. She is one of only three tenured women in the Harvard economics department.

During their 13 years of long-distance, the Hoxbys kept two houses by the side of the highway in Westborough and Old Lyme, Conn. They often stayed late on campus for committee meetings or student dinners, then drove to one home or the other, only to wake up at 4 a.m. to drive back before rush hour.

One afternoon, Caroline Hoxby drove from Cambridge to Connecticut just to give their sick cat his medicine, then drove back to Harvard for a night meeting, and finally went home to sleep in Westborough. Having children under these circumstances was out of the question.

The two were exhausted, not to mention worried about one of them having a serious car accident. They wanted to have a more normal life where they could see each other more and have students over for dinner.

Stanford first called Caroline Hoxby several years ago, asking "What would it take to get you out here?" she recalled. Standford's president, John Hennessy, met with her on multiple occasions and expressed strong interest in trying to overcome the dual-career problem -- not just for the Hoxbys, but in general.

Because Stanford wanted to hire Caroline Hoxby, the university gave the English department funding to hire Blair Hoxby two or three years before they otherwise would have had a slot for a Renaissance scholar.

The advantage of recruiting a pair is that "you get two faculty members of high value to the community to establish a household and stay in the area for a long time," said Ramón Saldívar , Stanford's English department chair.

Stanford's English department has hired at least two others as part of dual recruitments, but it has also turned away partners who were not up to the department's standards, he said.

Caroline Hoxby expressed frustration that, as far as she could tell, Harvard officials never showed the creativity or drive that Stanford did to find a solution.

When her colleagues wrote to administrators asking them to prevent her from leaving, the officials replied that they were "moving heaven and earth," she said. But she never saw evidence that they followed through. "I don't blame anyone for not thinking good thoughts," said Hoxby, who loved her 13 years on the faculty. But "my husband and I couldn't live on good thoughts any longer."

Harvard officials said they never comment on personnel issues, but are concerned about the dual-career problem. They, too, have poached. They recruited another star female economist, Susan Athey, from Stanford with her husband, Guido Imbens, from the University of California at Berkeley.

The university also funded the New England Higher Education Recruitment Consortium, a job listing website launched last fall and designed to help academics and their partners. Such networks have popped up around the country in the last few years, although they have been criticized as nothing more than electronic bulletin boards.

Several Harvard professors said the university should have done more to retain the Hoxbys, but some cautioned against a university going too far to accommodate couples. "Two-career couples are ideal for poaching at any school if one has tenure and one doesn't," said Henry Louis Gates Jr., former chairman of African and African-American Studies at Harvard. However, "I don't think universities do themselves any favors if they lower their standards to recruit a spouse."

Gates stressed that he was speaking in general and not about the Hoxbys, or star sociologist Lawrence Bobo and hip-hop scholar Marcyliena Morgan. Bobo and Morgan, a married couple in his department, decamped to Stanford two years ago after former Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers vetoed tenure for Morgan. Harvard is now trying to woo them back with an offer of tenure to Morgan.

The Hoxbys' new life at Stanford, though, is a distant dream for many people, said Cynthia Goheen, who runs the Academic Career Network based in Western Massachusetts for dual-career couples. Most couples are lucky to find one tenure-track job, Goheen said.

Mary Elizabeth Strunk gave up a full-time teaching position in St. Paul to accompany her husband, who is now at Amherst College. Strunk, an English and American studies scholar, has taken adjunct teaching gigs and, with Goheen's help, found a public relations position at a college museum to make ends meet.

Now the couple has a 16-month-old son, and Strunk has no idea if she will ever get on the tenure track. "When you partner with someone who is also a PhD, there are home turf battles because two people are struggling to establish a career," she said. "Inevitably one of them -- and it is usually the woman -- feels like they've given up a lot more."

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at