Anti-Nepotism Rules

Aug 21 2018 Published by under Academics, Careerism

The University of Texas, Austin rule states, in part:

No University employee may approve, recommend, or otherwise take action with regard to the appointment, reappointment, promotion, salary or supervision of a close relative as defined by this policy.

which is not, I think, uncommon.

So: No hiring your spouse or supervising your spouse.

There is also some weasel language that could potentially undercut the policy in practice. If you become married or a spouse transfers under your putative supervision, there has to be notification but it is allowed. The the management and oversight of this nepotistic employee goes to the PI’s boss.

This is likely how a thin veneer of red tape covers the case of a spouse working in the lab of an appointed Professorial rank person.

So nepotism is officially bad, but University policy has enough wiggle room to permit a de facto case of hiring and supervision of one's spouse.

In a lab the idea of getting meaningful supervisory oversight from the PI’s supervisor is a joke. It in no way can mitigate preferential treatment and in fact justifies it. The PI can set work hours, discipline for poor performance and even fire everyone *except* the spouse.

14 responses so far

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    At least in the 1990s, when I was a grad student (not at UT) it was extremely common for professors to have their Ph.D spouses working for them as lab managers and the like. I'm not talking about lab romances -- these people were already married when they came to the university. It's not ideal, obviously, and typically involves one spouse giving up their own chance to be a professor elsewhere, but it's kind of an obvious result of the two-body problem in hiring.

  • drugmonkey says:

    And I’m sure there was a thin veneer of cover over anti-nepotism rules.

  • Draino says:

    The other side of preferential treatment is an unprofessional employee who lacks motivation because they feel safe as a family member. The only person I've ever had to fire from my lab was family.

  • Microscientist says:

    I have a friend who illustrates the situation Jonathon Badger describes. As a post-doc, he met and married the lab manager of his post-doc lab. Then he gets a TT job at another university, so they move and she becomes his lab manager.
    Are you saying that in this situation the uni should have said no you can't? Then is the Uni willing to find a job for her? Because if not then it's a two body problem. I honestly think he might have gone elsewhere if the job offer came with the caveat that he can't have her as the manager. She's a really fabulous lab manager, which may have been part of the attraction to begin with.
    Not saying I have a solution to this, but it's really common.

  • eeke says:

    Just like it is in the white house. oh wait.

  • Dnaman says:

    We have a similar rule. The way people get around it is there's a search committee (the spouse is not on the committee). The committee recommends the other spouse for the job. We do that even if it is a wife lab manager working in husband PI lab kind of thing.

    Similar when promotion/salary increases are done. The chair or a committee unrelated does those letters/recommendations.

    I'm not sure how we get around the "supervision" part of the rule, maybe that's not on our rule.

  • wally says:

    I have worked in two departments in which the department chair was married to a faculty member in the department. The faculty member had to report to a dean since they couldn't report to the spouse. In both cases, the nepotism was still horrific as the faculty member had undue influence on the chair and also had a ton more power than any other regular faculty member over staff. Very uncomfortable situations in both cases.

  • Ola says:

    I have seen this cut both ways. I once worked in a Department where the chair's wife was a faculty member (she was his grad' student and married him). She was utterly useless, no grants, no teaching, never showed up to work, and would have easily been fired if she wasn't the chair's wife. She also got to raid his lab for resources/reagents etc. (as told by the poor suckers in her lab).

    OTOH I collaborate with a very successful couple where she's the lab manager and he's the PI. They're both very effective at what they do and everyone in the lab seems comfortable with the situation (at least, as far as I can tell from spending a lot of time in the lab itself as well as being on their students' thesis committees). They were married long before they got here and had the same arrangement at their previous institution, so anyone joining their lab knows the deal from day one.

    Being in a clinical department, the other nepotism example I encounter regularly is being asked to host useless P.O.S. high school or undergrad' student children of clinical faculty members for the summer, because they're "interested in research". Naturally the requests come in April/May, many months after everyone else has their summer fixed up, coincident with the student having an "oh shit what am I gonna do this summer" moment. These individuals are some of the most privileged assholes on the planet. I said yes once under duress as a junior faculty. Never again.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I've definitely seen the "PI's spouse is the lab manager" arrangement. It seems to be not uncommon as others here have noted. In all cases that I've seen it was husband = PI and wife = lab manager. Has anyone seen the opposite?

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    I can think of one case where it was the husband working for the wife, but yes, overwhelmingly it's the reverse in my experience.

  • drugmonkey says:

    So everyone agrees these are not-uncommon situations. Anti-nepotism rules, if present, usually have huge loopholes to allow exceptions. Of course, we would have no idea about the number of times anti-nepotism rules are used to prevent a desired spouse-in-PIs-lab situation versus the number of times it happens.

    Do we all agree these situations are inevitably inequitable to a person who shares nominal rank (or below) with the spouse of the PI?

  • Ola says:

    Here's one for you:

    I'm mid-to-senior faculty. My partner is also a scientist, and during the time I was a junior faculty they were a post-doc' in a completely different department/lab/building, working on an unrelated topic (but it's all life sciences). Said partner would sometimes get grief from students in their lab about being advantaged by having a free and open source for scientific discussions and information every night (i.e. me). They were jealous that she had an "inside line" to faculty level happenings. i think part of it was driven by the poor degree of mentoring in that lab, but still it created tensions.

    If this is how it is when there's absolute separation between labs and individuals in a relationship, I can only imagine the problems that would arise with the spouse being in the same lab.

  • Luminiferous aether says:

    @Ola what you describe about hosting clinicians' (and senior admins') kids is exactly what happens in my clinical dept and it is very annoying. As a junior PI, I have said yes more than once under duress, but I am starting to lose my patience. Without fail, these are last minute requests that can be disruptive to those who planned their summer well in advance.

  • SithInTraining says:

    These situations are inevitably inequitable to a person who shares nominal rank or below the spouse of the PI. It is baked into the entire affair regardless of good intentions. I also believe that corporations are a little more against the blatant nepotism or at least have legal policies set in place to address some of the inequities. I have experienced one lab where it was fine for me and everyone else but it was still inequitable and one lab where it was a waking nightmare and beyond unprofessional behavior every day.

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