Let's begin with a riddle: When is Purdue University to be preferred over Harvard? You might guess that there is an agriculture or engineering program at Purdue that Harvard cannot match. But we had something less rational in mind: namely, the annual spring ritual in which department heads seek outside letters of evaluation for faculty members being considered for tenure and promotion.
A few years ago, a friend of ours who played that role at a large public university experienced a little more than the usual level of frustration. Like many higher education administrators, the provost at this university had announced that outside letters evaluating candidates for tenure had to be from "peer" institutions. It is standard, though far from rational, for administrators to insist that outside letter writers must come from schools at least as good, but the short-lived pasha at this university added a less common caveat: the letters should not be from either lessor or greater institutions. Based on the institutional categories used at the time, there were 32 public research universities sharing the institution's rank. They were to be the only acceptable sources of evaluation letters. Letters from Ivy League universities or distinguished liberal arts colleges would not do. In a choice between Purdue and Harvard, you'd best choose Purdue.
Like faculty all over the country, we endure only slightly less crazy rules at Illinois and Indiana, where "equal or better" quality institutions are mandated, among other credentials, for letter writers. Last year an administrator at one of our institutions pushed his glasses down his nose, looked wisely over them, and asked "Is Penn State really a peer institution?" A department at another college had to reject the possibility of using a letter from an internationally renowned sociologist at Louisiana State University because the university was considered no match for his own. Then of course there are the apples and oranges matches: How do you compare a small, distinguished liberal arts college to a megauniversity?
Our own universities are hardly unique in employing such practices. Precisely because they are so common across the academy, the time has come for a national meditation on the procedures commonly associated with promotion and tenure. We begin with letters of recommendation because they are one of the more conspicuous and egregious components of a system in dire need of an overhaul. That's what we want to advocate here: a reform of the practices associated with awarding tenure and promotion to younger faculty and an equally serious reform of the procedures employed in promoting tenured associate professors to the rank of professor.
In some ways the rampant insanity of the process is even more striking in the latter case, where a lifetime employee is implicitly told: "You've done a great job, and we want to promote you. But over the next year we want you to assemble a lengthy dossier about yourself while we seek out poorly paid -- or unpaid -- experts to prove to us that you're worth it. Meanwhile, we may raise unpredictable and demeaning doubts about your qualifications. After we've finished with a ritual that makes fraternity hazing seem compassionate by comparison,we'll let you know if you've met the grade."
At a major Midwestern university this year, colleagues await the final decision in the case of an associate professor of philosophy up for promotion to full professor. He is the author of two books, each 400 pages in print, the co-editor of a massive reference book, and the author of half a dozen articles. His department voted unanimously to promote him. Then the problems began.
Although his outside letters were all clearly positive and supportive of promotion, some members of a college review committee felt they were not positive enough. That opened the door to a series of additional ill-informed complaints: he hadn't presented enough conference papers; he had no outside grants; the time between the publication of his two authored books was too great; he hadn't directed enough dissertations.
Cast aside as irrelevant was his decade of service in his department. Cast aside was the evidence of his devoted mentoring of graduate students not in his field. He had spent a summer writing the department's 60-page guide to graduate study. Cast aside was the evidence in both his writing and his teaching that he is a passionately committed intellectual. Cast aside was the judgment of both his colleagues and the outside referees.
After berating the philosophy department head for even proposing the promotion, the college committee voted against promotion. An appeals committee reacted in obvious anger, urging that the dean write a strong letter endorsing the promotion. Another committee is now reviewing the decision.
Why did the college executive committee act with such cruelty and irrationality? Why humiliate a faculty member who already has tenure? Why chip away at a case in which the faculty member has met all objective criteria?
The answer may have come from a dean at Indiana, who remarked recently that wholesale retirements over the last few years have made it impossible to appoint a competent college committee. There just aren't enough sane senior faculty members available to make up a committee with a sense of institutional history, a rational sense of fairness and an in-depth knowledge of campus standards. It is hard to rely on a college executive composed of three chimpanzees, a scorpion, a pit viper, and a coma patient.
Meanwhile, they are egged on by empty demands from provosts and chancellors to ratchet up "standards." At some point ratcheting up the standards for outside letters merely means institutionalizing paranoia. For many years we have argued that the scholarly achievements and status of the individual referee should be the basis of comparison. No sale.
We are told that a faculty member at a liberal arts college will not understand the standards at a major research institution. Of course that is complete nonsense. The standards at major schools are well known. Anyone actively participating in the profession will fully understand the criteria for tenure at the best institutions. It's the standards at the other end of the spectrum -- at small colleges with modest or largely nonexistent expectations for publication -- that are often mysterious.
When administrators demand letters from institutions that are equal or better, the latter is often preferred. This is all part of the pressure to increase standards for promotion. Since administrators cannot actually evaluate a candidate's work, they must ratchet up such "objective" criteria as the quality of colleges approached for outside letters. This goes hand in hand with demands for increased numbers of publications.
We'd rather see a candidate have one splendid book than three average ones, but judging the quality of scholarship requires serious intellectual engagement with a person's work. Hardly a job for a multidisciplinary committee or an administrator outside the field.
As we saw in the case of the philosopher, once the outside letters leave the department they may be subjected to another strange rite of passage. They are read and reread in search of doubts, criticisms, or exceptions. In a world organized into paranoid hierarchies, any reservations in a letter are immediately seized upon as evidence of "the truth." Praise is considered suspect or formulaic; criticism is obviously heartfelt, honest, sincere, and unfailingly insightful. The one point of criticism in a single letter may carry more weight than a stack of superlatives. Outside evaluators who insert a criticism or two to make their letters balanced have obviously not learned how the game is being played.
All this makes the departmental vetting of potential referees increasingly difficult and increasingly necessary. Publishers have long known that a manuscript should be evaluated by someone sympathetic to the kind of work being done who can then decide whether the work is done well. Anything else is a waste of time and potentially unfair. You do not send a feminist scholar's book to a Taliban cleric to evaluate it, because you know what to expect from such a reader.
Of course that is essentially exactly what happened to many feminist scholars in the 1970s, when it was widely assumed anyone really knowledgeable would be biased in favor of the work. Scholars working in new or marginal areas are still subjected to the same disabling ideology and outside letter writers are sought out who are either ignorant or antagonistic. But the reverse can be equally risky. If an aggressively traditional scholar may be a bad bet to review innovative work, a scholar deeply committed to recovering, say, forgotten gay poetry may not be a wise choice to review someone writing about Catholicism in modern literature.
A reasonable match between the research expertise of candidate and evaluator is the best bet. Unless, of course, the candidate seeks to overturn the dominant values in a particular field. One of us recently encountered exactly that problem with a brilliant candidate who received problematic letters and was denied tenure as a result, despite a unanimous positive vote by a department convinced he was the best untenured person in the field. What all this suggests, at the very least, is that the character and quality of the referee should trump such considerations as where he or she teaches.
"Character" can be understood in both professional and personal terms as well. It is crucial to the enterprise that reviewers not only be accomplished intellectuals but also rational, fair-minded human beings. Does the person step back and judge work on its own terms? Or does the person tend to say what sort of book or essay he or she would have written and criticize the candidate for failing to do so? There are no certainties in these matters, but running the names of possible referees by a knowledgeable colleague in the field can eliminate notoriously destructive scholars.
Such considerations should also trump academic rank. It should be clear that accomplished associate professors are fully capable of judging -- and in some cases better able to judge -- certain kinds of scholarship than are many full professors. A generation ago, associate professors regularly served as outside referees. Now the standards have been "raised;" at our institutions and others they are virtually prohibited.
Then there is the recurring nightmare for department chairs, as one of us happens to be: trying to find authors for the number of letters required. This year Indiana's English department set out to assemble papers for one assistant and four associate professors. At Indiana each case requires 8 letters. That figure, happily, is down from a previous requirement of 10 -- all the extra two letters did was increase the chance of bagging a cranky letter writer and throwing the case into crisis.
To reach the total of 40 letters required for this year's 5 candidates, nearly 80 faculty were contacted. Eighty names vetted and researched, submitted, and approached. Many didn't even bother to respond to an initial e-mail request, apparently deciding even that amount of labor was more than they were willing to exert. Many more politely declined. Several responded rudely. Others mimicked their undergraduates, dreaming up reasons to say no. Fortunately, this year no one's grandmother passed away suddenly.
Not surprisingly, in such a climate department chairs call on their brother and sister chairs, souls sympathetic to the dilemma. Old debts are called in. At times, a kind of quid pro quo system develops; you help me this year, I'll help you next. Anxiety, abjection, occasional despair of ever completing the task -- all these are byproducts of the process for both chairs and candidates.
A few years ago in "The Random Insanity of Letters of Recommendation" ( The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 1, 2002), Deirdre McCloskey called the use of outside letters "a scandalous failure of common sense. It is corrupt, dishonest, unscientific." Since then, matters have only become worse. McCloskey urged "the responsible body to read the candidate's work and discuss its intellectual quality with immediate colleagues in a context of believably disinterested assessments from outside."
Some departments would be capable of holding such discussions, though the paranoid ratcheting up of standards makes any admissions of weaknesses in a candidate very dangerous indeed. But few college or campus level committees are any longer competent to serve this role.
Deans should be willing to invest resources in both internal committees and external referees. Given the increased risk that the single disciplinary representative on a multidisciplinary committee may be an assassin or a fool, it may be necessary to assemble separate committees to assess candidates in the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and fine arts. Members of these committees might be compensated by a released course to give them time to conduct thoughtful reviews.
External reviewers who are expected to read a substantial amount of work and write detailed letters of evaluation should be compensated financially, as the Modern Language Association recommends. At present, humanities reviewers read much and write detailed letters. Scientists read much less and often write a perfunctory paragraph or two of confirmation.
Our own departments pay about a $100 for an evaluation -- far better than not paying, which is unfortunately the option most colleges choose, but still far less than adequate. The University of Minnesota pays $300 and makes it clear that it expects a thorough, detailed report. The University of Notre Dame provides $200 and expects the same.
While still far less than one would typically be paid for giving a single guest lecture at a university, Minnesota's practice is at the high end of the scale; it represents dignified compensation and generates more complete, thoughtful, and reliable letters. If other institutions did the same, the process would be improved over all.
Limiting the number of letters required also makes sense, especially since many faculty members receive several such requests every year. It is not unusual for referees writing numerous letters to spend a full week or two reading materials and composing reports. Two weeks of uncompensated labor can make anyone grumpy and less careful.
The aim is not to guarantee positive letters, but rather to assure every candidate a measure of justice and dignity. If hiring committees have done their jobs well and carefully chosen new faculty whose talents meet the needs, expectations, and ambitions of the department, then most probationary faculty members should earn tenure.
Worst of all is a set of problematic letters for a candidate whose teaching and research the department genuinely admires. As the standard for letters becomes increasingly higher and the price to be paid for one negative letter becomes ever more commonly catastrophic, the process risks becoming arbitrary and insane.
Campus review committees determined to raise standards can, in turn, become suspicious of departments that consistently assemble positive letters for their strong candidates, as if it were somehow a setup. On the other hand, when a department believes in a candidate but cannot gather appropriate letters the campus considers the department incapable of making sound judgments on its own. Negative views always trump positive ones. It is a high stakes game in which the best interests of the institution -- retaining quality faculty -- can too easily be set aside.
At the very least, some distinctions between tenure decisions and promotion to full professor need to be enforced. We would not grant the latter casually or for time served in rank. But an associate professor who has clearly met the standards for publication should be promoted in rank. Such promotions should always entail increased compensation. And campus review committees should overlook minor weaknesses in those cases.
There should be an institutional commitment to collegiality and to creating a positive workplace, both aims that are undermined when people who already have lifetime tenure are humiliated and degraded. A more exacting standard may be warranted when the decision to grant lifetime tenure is at stake, but even then sanity demands that the preponderance of the evidence be the standard. When committees ignore the preponderance of the evidence and focus on minority opinion they inflict wounds that even survivors of the process can carry for years.
Our experience suggests the tenure process now occasionally goes crazy, but it is not impossible to see how the system can be improved.
Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt
Cary Nelson is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Stephen Watt is professor of English and chair of the department at Indiana University. They are co-authors of Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary for Higher Education and, most recently, of Office Hours: Activism and Change in the Academy, both published by Routledge.