ask a scatterbrain: externals for tenure

External tenure letters are a vitally important part of the tenure process and therefore a source of anxiety for the applying faculty member. Many institutions give the applicant for tenure some role in constructing the list of people who are asked to write letters. If you are in a position to construct a list of people in your field, is it acceptable to send a note to ask them if they are willing to be on this list, or is that considered an unethical attempt to game the system? Or, as I suspect, is it officially considered unethical but in real life done regularly?

4 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain: externals for tenure”

  1. I have two answers. My first answer is that it is entirely appropriate to contact people. Departments definitely cannot “pre-screen” letter-writers for positive (or negative) opinions before asking them to write. But candidates who are allowed to suggest names get to suggest on any basis they wish. Except that I would talk to people instead of sending a note. If it isn’t someone you already know well enough to talk to at a meeting or call up and talk to on the phone, then asking this kind of question is going to be awkward and uncomfortable. If you are going to take the personal angle, it is better if you have already gotten to know them and discussed professional issues in advance of the big year. Hopefully you already know from their feedback on your work what they think of it. In a way, the people it is appropriate to ask are probably the people you don’t need to ask because you already know them and what they think of your work because you’ve talked about it with them. But alerting them that you’re making a the list and asking if they think they’d be a good person to put on the list increases the chances that they’ll say yes when asked. Senior people at top places get asked to do a LOT of tenure reviews, which are a ton of work, and usually cannot say yes to all the requests. Deans and colleges have a nasty habit of coding refusals to do reviews as implicit negatives.

    My second answer: in practice, I have only rarely been pre-asked by the people I’ve done tenure reviews for, and I’m fairly often asked to review people whose work I haven’t read until the review.


  2. Thanks for asking about this, Tina, and thanks for your thoughtful reply, OW.

    I can’t believe the stress that I’m experiencing over this part of the process. It’s nice to know I’m not alone and to hear a bit from the other side.


  3. I think a big part of the stress is how long those lists are. I am sure that most of us can think of 3-4 perfect people to ask, but at my department and elsewhere tenure candidates submit lists of ten people. What junior person knows ten people in their field well enough to ask for a letter?


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