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February 13, 2008, 11:18 AM ET

A Partnership Ends in Academe, and in Life

Mark and Karen Muyskens shared a faculty job in chemistry at Calvin College, in Michigan, for nearly 20 years. They split the teaching load and did most of their research together. At times they even shared an office.

So last month when Ms. Muyskens, who was 46, died suddenly of septic shock, the college and Mr. Muyskens had to quickly decide what to do. Would Mr. Muyskens — who has three school-aged children — assume the couple’s job full time? Or should Calvin try to find someone to take over Ms. Muyskens’ half-time position?

The chemistry department felt it needed to act quickly. It had another faculty search under way, and the requirements for that job could change depending on what Mr. Muyskens wanted to do.

“The whole college said, Mark, you have to attend your family,” said Larry L. Louters, chairman of chemistry. “We’ll deal with whatever your answer is.”

Mr. Muyskens came up with a novel approach. He will assume the job full time on the books, but request to work — and be paid — for only two-thirds time. That will allow him to cover all the couple’s courses in physical chemistry. It will also allow him to assume full-time work later when his children are older and need money to pay for college.

Mr. Muyskens says some of the couple’s research projects will be difficult for him to do on his own, particularly one involving two lasers. He says his new work arrangements give him “a little more space to process the new reality and to make adjustments here and at home.” The Muyskens’ children are 15, 12, and 8 years old.

Calvin College is known for its willingness to accommodate academic couples, although most do not share a single position. The Muyskens, who earned their doctoral degrees at the University of Wisconsin, decided from the beginning that they didn’t want two full-time academic careers. They came to Calvin with the job-sharing proposal.

“In grad school, they’d seen mentors who really didn’t have a life but lab work,” said Mr. Louters. Ms. Muyskens, an avid runner who was training for a marathon, developed flu-like symptoms and was hospitalized five days before she died. Doctors have been unable to explain to Mr. Muyskens how she contracted the infection that lead to her death.

Calvin has posted an article about Ms. Muyskens on its Web site, with information about a memorial fund it has established to start a scholarship in her name.

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