New finance professors Peter and Susan Christoffersen


Living with that long-distance feeling

SYLVAIN-JACQUES DESJARDINS | After living apart for a half dozen years, Ted Szymanski and his wife are calling it quits they're ending the long-distance nature of their relationship, that is.

Szymanski is leaving McGill to return to his native Toronto for a permanent reunion with his wife, Maria Brand. Come January, he'll reluctantly depart the University's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, where he's been a professor since 1991, to teach his discipline at McMaster University.

Szymanski stresses that he thinks that the University and Montreal are both "fantastic," but he has no doubt that he's doing the right thing. "Although I'm greatly saddened to be leaving McGill and Montreal," Szymanski says, "my wife and I are happy our long distance relationship is finally coming to an end."

Szymanski and Brand, a college teacher, are part of an increasing number of couples who work as academics and find it difficult to land jobs in the same city. Universities across the country have been hammered by budget cuts in recent years. There just aren't as many scholarly jobs as there used to be.

While it's said absence makes the heart grow fonder, few would argue that long-distance relationships are easy. With the cumulative effects of loneliness, longing and outrageous long distance phone bills, Szymanski says, "A couple needs to be strong to get through a long-term separation."

He adds that the cost of frequent commuting to see a partner, coupled with the expense of double lodging, is also prohibitive. He should know.

Before coming to McGill, he taught at Columbia University from 1987 to 1991, when his relationship with Brand began. Although the two decided to make Montreal their home and married in 1994, Brand was unable to find fulfilling work here and did not want to leave the security of her 10-year job at a Toronto community college. So Szymanski decided to put an end to their distance, reasoning enough was enough.

Michael Szonyi felt the same way. The Chinese history specialist, who taught at McGill from 1995 to last spring, joined his spouse, Francine McKenzie, in his native Toronto last summer after being apart on and off for more than five years. "I was really torn about leaving," Szonyi says. "I would really have preferred to stay in Montreal and McGill, which I loved."

But Szonyi's love of his wife won out. Last summer he left McGill's Department of History to join McKenzie in Hogtown and was hired by the University of Toronto's history department, where his wife was already teaching. Married for about a year, the two have been together for six years and faced their first separation when Szonyi travelled to inner China for 14 months while completing his PhD at Oxford University, leaving McKenzie in Cambridge to complete her own PhD.

After returning to Canada, they adopted Montreal as a home base, but McKenzie never found work here. She did find employment in Toronto, but constantly making the trek to spend time with Szonyi became increasingly difficult. "She was exhausted," Szonyi recalls about his wife travelling every weekend to their Mile End apartment. "I wondered, 'How long will we have to endure this for the sake of a career?'"

Szonyi knows he made the right decision, but can't help thinking he let McGill down by leaving. "The University trusted me and gave me a chance when they hired me," he says.

Catherine LeGrand, chair of the Department of History, says she was sad to see the highly valued Szonyi leave. "His field of study is very important and he attracted many students," she says, noting his departure was a further blow for a department that also recently lost a professor specializing in Japanese history. He quit to be with his wife, too.

LeGrand would like McGill to play a greater role in retaining its faculty whose spouses live away. "Maybe a committee should be formed" to examine the issues, she says. "I know how hard long-distance relationships are since I had to deal with one myself," she adds. When she taught at Queen's University in Kingston, from 1985 to 1990, her husband lived in Montreal.

Vice-Principal (Academic) Bill Chan says McGill tries to help its professors find work for their out-of-town spouses within the University or through a network of private sector contacts. "We try to assist as part of modern day recruiting," he says, noting Montreal is a better city than most for married professors -- it offers four universities with possible jobs. But he acknowledges that sometimes, the job search is fruitless.

Chan, whose own wife, Christina Hui, is on a leave of absence from McGill's School of Physical and Occupational Therapy, understands the difficulty of maintaining a long distance relationship. His wife left Montreal in 1995 to become chair of the Rehabilitation Department at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

"At our age it's not as hard as it is for younger couples," says Chan, noting he's been married since 1969 and their two children are in their twenties. The couple copes with their separation with E-mail, phone calls (sometimes racking up $300 bills) and visiting one another every six weeks. As for his children, he says, "They now have two homes. By visiting Hong Kong, it offers them exciting possibilities."

Physics professor Shawn Lovejoy, who was also once parted from his wife for a prolonged period, says it can be managed as long as there are no young children involved (he now has two). "If you can get together every weekend," he says, "it can go on for a while -- if there's an end in sight. But if the separation is open-ended, [the relationship] can't go on indefinitely."

For Susan and Peter Christoffersen, a prolonged separation ended with good fortune when both were hired as finance professors in McGill's Faculty of Management this fall.

Susan and Peter had been separated for two years shortly after marrying; she was studying in Philadelphia while he worked for the International Monetary Fund in Washington. "We commuted every weekend," she says, "and I said forget it, we need to find jobs in the same city when I finish school."

So the pair applied to 80 universities, stressing they would only accept job offers if their spouse could find work in or near that school, too. "It was a planned attack on the job market," Christoffersen says. "We're extremely happy," she says adding, that McGill needed two finance professors just as they were hunting for work. "I count my lucky stars that it happened."