Laurie Burns McRobbie

"Reflections on the First Lady Role"

Thank you, Del, and thanks to Sherry Rouse for inviting me to speak today. I see a lot of familiar faces in the room, and it’s great to be with all of you.

The Title Of First Lady

When Michael became president in 2007, I spent time trying to decide whether I even wanted to use the title “First Lady”, rather than the more neutral “Presidential Spouse.” It is the 21st century, after all, and with an increasing number of women serving as university presidents it’s no longer an exclusively female role. And the title “First Lady” sounded, well, like a title. We have only to look at the headline in a recent IDS report of my visit to an Office of Women’s Affairs-sponsored event to see that I’ve apparently ascended to the ranks of the British ruling class. The headline read, “Lady McRobbie Empowers Women Students”.

But I finally chose the title of First Lady because overall, it has positive meaning and even a degree of autonomy. And here at IU as elsewhere, it has a distinguished history.

The Role of IU's First Lady

I am IU’s 18th first lady, or at least, the spouse of the 18th president. At least one president, David Starr Jordan, was married twice during his presidency, and one first lady was actually the president’s mother (Bernice Wells). I am in the process of gathering information on all of my predecessors and it’s clear they have been valued and instrumental contributors to the development of the University and especially to its character and its spirit. They also serve as a kind of lens through which we can see the evolution of women’s roles since IU’s founding nearly 200 years ago. Margaret Wylie, IU’s first first lady, moved her family of nine children to Bloomington in 1829, when Bloomington was a frontier town of 400 citizens, with red clay streets that became rivers of mud when it rained. IU, then Indiana College, had 40 students, all male, and three faculty members. Her home was effectively the first “union”, the parlor serving as a gathering place for university, community, and church business, and she as a substitute mother to young men far from home.

The first ladies who served IU in the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th were able to take advantage of the university as students, after Sarah Parke Morrison was admitted in 1867. Jesse Jordan, wife of David Starr Jordan, finished her bachelor’s degree at IU after leaving her studies at Cornell. She was President Jordan’s helpmate, friend, and critic. Almost from the day of their marriage Mrs. Jordan helped the president write his speeches and other communications. She gave receptions for women students, newly admitted to IU at the end of the 19th century, and for alumni and arranged many social evenings to vary the routine of college work.

Charlotte Lowe Bryan was also an IU student—earning a bachelor’s degree from IU in 1888 and a master’s degree in 1889. Within the month after she received her AM degree, she and her former philosophy professor were married. As a token of their close partnership, Dr. Bryan took his bride's maiden name as his middle one. Mrs. Bryan was herself a philosopher and a Greek scholar, and collaborated with her husband on three books about Plato.

When John Ryan became IU’s 14th president in 1971, his wife Pat told me that she didn't know the extent of her public duties. One goal she knew she wanted to take on was to complete her undergraduate studies. She served admirably as first lady of IU while simultaneously raising her family and finishing her bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology in 1979.

Regardless of her involvement in the academic life of the university, each first lady conducted herself in the context of her time, and all filled the same basic roles: advocate, ambassador, hostess, house manager, fundraiser, public speaker, event planner, presidential confidante, and member of the community.

It’s certainly been my experience since Michael took office that these roles are all operating simultaneously, and thus the process of adjusting to being first lady is a process of integrating all these identities smoothly. It’s also a process of finding which of these identities fit best with one’s own aspirations and one’s own personality, and finding ways to put a personal stamp on things. It’s not an unfamiliar process to any of us – modern life is certainly about juggling and balancing – but a few unique themes stand out:

  • It all happens in public, so you have to hope for a forgiving community;
  • Success and satisfaction rest on having defined and set expectations with key stakeholder groups, particularly the Trustees, but also donors and alumni and the broader community;
  • It comes with some authority, often more than one realizes, but there’s a fine line between taking and using what one has and not overstepping into operations of the university. It requires vigilance and perspective;
  • And, it comes with a level of accountability to the university community, particularly since here at IU it’s a paid position.

Spousal Compensation

This last theme reflects a recent and significant change in the way the spouse of the president functions and is seen by the university’s various constituencies. Starting in the 1980s as increasing numbers of women had moved into the workforce and had their own careers, governing boards couldn’t as easily count on the “two for one” deal as the model of the independent spouse emerged. IU’s 16th presidential spouse, Peg Brand, was instrumental in facilitating this change. Peg helped professionalize the role of first lady in an era when women were actively working for equity. In 1989, eleven percent of the spouses who responded to a survey conducted by the Association of American Universities had written job descriptions. About 5 percent received salaries. Nearly half noted that they were interviewed as part of their university’s presidential search. Incidentally, all but one were female. The demands on the spouse were, if anything, continuing to increase both in number and complexity. Many spouses, Peg included, felt it was time to negotiate a better defined role for the presidential spouse—one that entailed established responsibilities, clearer expectations, and compensation in some form, such as retirement benefits.

Peg advocated for spousal compensation and worked through the AAU to develop policies that encourage governing boards to formally recognize the spouse’s role and consider it a titled position with a job description, salary, and/or benefits. Now, nearly half of spouses at AAU institutions receive some sort of compensation, and close to two-thirds have written job descriptions. IU has been a real pioneer in this area – it is still the case that some universities have anti-nepotism policies that prevent a presidential spouse from holding ANY position at the university, and others still have only unwritten and unrecognized expectations for the presidential spouse, regardless of whether he or she works outside the university.

Accommodating a spouse’s own career is an important change for the better, but of course traditional expectations for the spouse haven’t gone away. In fact, if anything, the traditional role of “first friend” in terms of donor relations has, if anything, gotten more demanding as universities across the country – particularly public universities – are increasingly dependent on dollars raised from alumni. The fact that I’m paid figures significantly in the degree to which I’ve gotten involved in the work of the IU Foundation – not just attending functions but actively contributing to Foundation programs and strategies for engaging alums, particularly women. Recent scholarship has shown the impact of women’s giving, for reasons of longevity as well as increased command of financial resources, earned or inherited. Wives are often the ones making philanthropic decisions for themselves and their husbands. Being able to establish connections with women alums or wives of alums has become a critical aspect of fundraising. Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, has been recognized as one of the nation’s ten best presidents for her ability to raise money that has allowed U of M to weather the current economic downturn relatively well. It has been noted that it’s her rapport with women that has been instrumental in her success. And this advantage can extend to the presidential spouse.

Advocate, Ambassador, Hostess, Confidante, Mother, Spouse

As IU’s 18th first lady, I have come into the role after 25 years in the work force and experiences of my own with how feminism has shaped women’s lives. Expectations are different now, at least our own expectations for ourselves as first spouses. We’ve more often been independent wage earners and have the same kinds of career experiences that our husbands have had. Within the bounds of the role, there is great potential for the first spouse to be an even more active player and leader in the campus community. At the same time, there is also great potential for the campus to lose something of the traditional social/civic role when presidential spouses pursue their work outside the academy. This is yet one more reason to ensure recognition for the role.

Of course, this is just reality in the 21st century, and every presidential couple as well as every institution will, one hopes, find a mix that works. I do hope that in this new century we are moving past the era of the zero-sum game, where for women to gain men have to give up, or where women’s gains mean losing valued aspects of women’s lives. There are so many women now who have explored a broad range of options that perhaps the model of the 21st century first spouse can be one in which there aren’t so many “either/or” choices to be made, and where it’s more natural to blend the identities of working professional, spouse, fundraiser, hostess, advocate for personal causes and the president’s policies, parent, and “first friend” of the university.

I must take a moment to comment that just as her husband is as President, Michelle Obama is breaking new ground in the First Lady role, and I believe this signals a sea change in what’s possible and what will become expected for a presidential spouse at other levels. She is already finding a way to be an effective surrogate for her husband, which is surely helped by her considerable intelligence, her skills and experiences as an attorney, and which requires her to be an avid student of the issues. She has taken on causes that are her own and will no doubt advocate for those in ways that also call on her many professional experiences and accomplishments. Her daughters are very fortunate, as I was myself, to be raised by a woman who understands that part of being a good mother is to show her daughters how to lead.

Personal Reflections

I want to end by reflecting more personally on the role, at least as it has changed my life. I grew up as the daughter of a faculty member (my father) and a university administrator (my mother, at least for a period of time). I was born in Madison, WS and moved to Ann Arbor, MI when I was a baby, so Bloomington is my third Midwestern college town. It’s made the transition much easier, because so much of Bloomington and IU is familiar to me. My career has been in higher education and I understand how big research universities work. But nothing quite prepares you for being a public figure, for losing control over your time, for always having to be “on”, for having to be careful about who you confide in, and even what you look like when you go to the store (although I’ve decided this is one of the ways I stay grounded – going to the store in my workout clothes with no makeup!). It’s also been hard to give up the autonomy and independence that comes with having one’s own career and life outside the specifics of the presidential job. Especially for younger spouses, this is a real adjustment and not one that all can make. A number of spouses of AAU presidents have maintained at least a part-time job either within or outside of the university. The hardest part, however, is managing all this with children, because they, least of all, deserve the scrutiny that comes with this kind of a role.

Of course, the benefits of the role are extraordinary, and our children also see that. The opportunity to be part of all the curiosity, discovery and progress that are hallmarks of great universities is unparalleled. The visibility one has as first lady is also an opportunity, a kind of bully pulpit that can have tremendous impact. It’s enormously satisfying to me to use the “name recognition value” I have to bring attention and support to things that are deeply important to the community. Again, my background in Ann Arbor taught me a lot about the importance of “town-gown” relations and this has motivated a lot of what I do on a regular basis.

And of course, you get to meet and interact with some truly remarkable people. I never imagined that in my lifetime, I would attend the inauguration of a U.S. President and a Nobel Prize ceremony in the same year! My husband and I also work together, an aspect of the role that I didn’t fully appreciate until we’d been doing this for a few months. We attend almost all events together, travel together, and while it’s important for us to get away from the job, especially him, it helps that we have a built-in grasp of the complexities each of us faces on a daily basis.

All of these experiences are privileges, and I am deeply grateful to the wonderful university, and its president, that has made it all possible.

Thank you.