tenure letters

It’s that time of year. People are considering job changes and everyone who moves from one tenured job to another needs external letters. In this game, the request for letters comes only after the department has made a hiring decision: the letters are for the an extra-departmental review at the college level. I am being asked for letters on a few weeks notice, just as I had to ask other people for them when I did my bit as chair. I am looking at several requests as I write this. Some of these are from obscure branch campuses I’ve never heard of that are asking for detailed analytic evaluations of the contributions and national influence of the candidates, for God’s sake.  Others are for extremely senior people who hardly need me to buttress their claim to fame. I have three choices: spend significant time working up a good detailed letter being sure to explain why everybody is a star, write a superficial positive letter that is at risk of being coded as reserved (i.e. negative), especially for the non-stars, or decline to write and definitely be coded as negative, again, especially for the non-stars. This is idiocy. It is bad enough that we have to do this for promotion to tenure, but does anybody believe that the external letters provide one iota of information that could not be obtained from reading the cv and the person’s publications? The department wants to know whether the person is a lunatic, but that they find out from gossip or phone calls. I don’t mind altruism and doing things for the collective good and the welfare of other scholars, but I do resent wasting my time for the benefit of bureaucratic nonsense. Not only are they asking me to read their watch for them, they are asking me to write several pages of well-crafted prose about what it says and do it for free.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

7 thoughts on “tenure letters”

  1. Yes, it would help. But I’m not talking about “letters of recommendation,” which you ask people to write for you. I’m talking about deans sending letters asking you to give a “candid and confidential” evaluation of some scholars’s portfolio as part of approving them for a tenure hire. I theory, it is not your friends. I know I should not be so crabby, but I really consider this whole enterprise of “outside letters” to be a bad idea.


  2. I feel for you. I was just asked to write a letter on behalf of the single most influential scholar in his field over the past two decades, and any idiot could look at his CV and know it. But I understand that different institutions work in different ways. My experience has been that letters such as these don’t add much to what a department already knows. But some institutions have campus-level review committees that are more than rubber stamps, and the letters may be more for their benefit than for the department’s. Campus-wide committees may not feel they have the requisite expertise to evaluate a candidate, and for historical reasons may distrust a department’s recommendation. I’ve seen campus-level committees that have made some poor judgments on tenure decisions, and would like to think that a decent outside letter could work to minimize that risk.
    But that’s a different issue than a mismatch between an institution’s aspirations and the qualifications of their candidates, as in the case of “obscure branch campuses” and national influence.
    Have you ever written a negative tenure letter?


  3. Yes, the letters are for college committees, not the departments. So your argument is that we should continue to support outside letters to protect departments against college committees. I had not considered that angle. I’m not saying it has changed my mind in my very negative view of the whole “outside letter” process, but it is one of the few arguments I’ve heard for outside letters that seem to me to have some merit.

    As a lot of people know or can figure out who I am, I’m not going to go into any detail about letters I have written, except to say that I’m not willing to lie about what I think, at the same time I am very aware that anything remotely negative will hurt someone.


  4. Sorry, I didn’t mean to put you on the spot. (I’m one of the masses who has no idea who you are.) I have written a few negative letters, and it’s not an easy thing to do, particularly if you know the candidate. I rationalize it by reminding myself that a tenure review involves the assessment of a lot of information; one external letter is a small part of the typical dossier; and the ultimate “up-or-out” decision isn’t mine to make.


  5. My feeling, as someone who went up for and was awarded promotion and tenure recently (2006), is that external letters give members of promotion and tenure committees at the departmental and college level a sense of a person’s national and international reputation and influence. A lot of unseemly stuff happens in departments – “down the hall” kinds of petty professional jealousies as colleagues compete for meager resources. Intradepartmental professional jealousies can interfere with objective assessment of CVs. The unprepossessing colleague (me, for example, since I look more like a custodian than a professor) that doesn’t fit everyone’s preconception of what a professor is supposed to look like (because of some combination of ethnicity, gender, or class) may, in fact, be a bigger player in their field than one might suppose. A supportive letter from an eminent scholar (such as you olderwoman), from a prestigious institution and/or program, can work wonders in putting a person’s accomplishments into national and international perspective. I realize that these external letter requests are a pain in the neck – but they serve a very noble purpose in some instances. Even though you won’t be writing one on my behalf olderwoman, I sincerely thank you for your efforts on the behalf of other people.


  6. Again, my initial complaint was not about tenure promotion letters, but about external letters to support the hiring of people with tenure, where the person is typically over-qualified for the post (compared to internal promotions) and the letters are asked for on a very short timetable and are requested to support a decision that has already been made.

    I can see your point about internal promotions and jealousies and such that make external letters helpful. And that is why I generally agree to do the letters. BUT external letters are just as subject to personal considerations and manipulation as internal judgments. How the letter-writers get chosen is the name of the game. You can pick writers who are likely to be positive, and you can pick writers who are likely to be negative, or at least restrained in their enthusiasm. Notice that you are assuming the letter from high-status “objective” person will be positive. And, in fact, if high status person suggests that s/he is not actually all that fond of the work or finds it rather ordinary, this is going to hurt the young scholar’s career. So the letter-writer is subject to strong pressures to be positive (and those pressures are stronger the greater the network ties between the writer and the subject) where those pressures to be positive are counter-balanced by the unwillingness of the writer to lie about what s/he thinks, where that constraint is again greater the greater one’s network ties to the readers of the letters. Writing one of these letters is a highly-constrained balancing act, not an objective intellectual appraisal of a body of work.

    You should be aware that deans of colleges and divisional committees think the reason they get external letters is that there are pressures within departments to be nice to everyone, and they use the external letters as a negative check.

    Having watched the way review committees pick over the nuances of language in letters, looking for any evidence of constraint or guarded language, especially when the reviewer has developed a negative prior for whatever reason, I am even more conscious of the multiple layers of personalism involved in the whole external letter process.

    The most positive thing you can say about external letters is that they inject more information into the system, information that comes from outside the local networks, whatever they are. But the soliciting, writing, and reading of external letters is just as subject to personal factors as any other part of the evaluation process.


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