Handling a Break-Up

I’m the chair of a small department, and have just been informed that two of my department members, who have been married to each other for the last 15 years (one was a spousal hire, in fact, at the time of recruitment), are separating. It appears this is an acrimonious split, and to make matters worse, they research and teach in related areas. The implications for the work and/or the climate of the department are significant. Can you offer advice about how I might handle this while still respecting their privacy?  Help!
—Dealing with a Break-Up

Dear Professor Break-Up,

As we all know, one of the possible side effects of a spousal hire is a departmental divorce. Many of us have had to deal with this, and it’s a tough problem.  I’d advise you to deal with this discreetly but head-on. Ask each person to meet with you individually to express your concerns. Try and have them keep the complaining about the other one to a minimum — you’re not interested in their personal lives, but in the health of the department. I think it’s ok to say that your sense of their split is that it’s not as amicable as it could be, and you’re concerned that their feelings towards each other might leak into  the professional realm. One way you can help them is to schedule them on different days, so they don’t have to run into each other in the department too much. Obviously, don’t put them on the same committees as much as you can avoid it. But it’s entirely possible that they’ll be sharing students or serving on the same orals and dissertation committees, if you have a doctoral program. In fact, they probably are co-advisors to a number of students already.

I’d ask each of them whether they’ve talked about these issues and if they’ve come to any decisions. I wouldn’t be surprised if they haven’t — I’d imagine they have a lot of other things to fight over. Emphasize that they need to put their students first and be collegial with each other; this is a place where separating the personal and the professional is difficult but important. Similarly, while I’m sure each of them is badmouthing the other while out drinking with colleagues, they have to leave that at the department door. Department meetings are going to be awkward for a while, but having to behave themselves might help your colleagues deal with the stresses of working together. Again, I’d encourage you to be supportive but direct — your priority is the well-being of the department as a whole. Ideally they’ll be grownups about this, and they might even model for colleagues who have disagreements how to deal with opposition in professional ways.

—The Chair

1 Comment

  • Lee Newton says:

    I agree with The Chair, who–in my experience–offers good advice. I would emphasize that your two colleagues MUST leave any uncivil and unprofessional behavior at the campus borders. I would, based on my past experience, also be very clear that they can not discuss this issue with students and that any attempt to “turn students” against their former partner will not be tolerated.
    –another Chair

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