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No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
March 5, 2007

The requests begin in August and, mercifully and hopefully, cease in January. The request can be in the form of a telephone call, email, letter, or, in the worst of circumstances, an overnight delivery 
package. The recipient of such requests should be honored; as such a request signifies one's status in the pantheon of accomplishment in the academy.  However, the normal first reaction evokes the Mark 
Twain story about the man who was tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail -- "If it weren't for the honor, I'd just as soon have walked."

And what high honor would most intelligent academics decline? The dreaded request for an external letter of evaluation for an individual being considered by his or her college or university for promotion and/or tenure. I do not know the exact history of the expectation that candidates for promotion and tenure be evaluated by professionals in their field from outside the candidate's university, but by the early 1980s such letters seemed to be a normative component of promotion dossiers. Those who send and receive such letters know the basic format: evaluate the candidate's scholarship, place the candidate among his or her peers in the field of expertise, and state whether the candidate would be promoted and/or tenured at comparable institutions.

It was a combination of the zeal of youth and quest for professional recognition that filled me with glee and self-satisfaction the first few times I was asked to prepare an external evaluation. Twenty years later I view the prospect of "external evaluation season" with the same joy I experience when I go for a root canal procedure.

It is not that the actual task of reviewing a colleague's scholarship and preparing a letter of evaluation is so onerous -- it is not.  What I simply hate is the nearly complete professional disrespect that has become a routine part of the process.  The following, in no particular order, are my pet peeves:

  • The unsolicited request. Granted it is not every time, but at least two or three times a year an overnight package arrives containing a letter requesting an external review, a CV, and a four-inch stack of papers, offprints, and perhaps even a book (which I am supposed to then return).
  • The "do it yesterday" request. From the deadlines that accompany the request, I assume that my colleagues at other colleges and universities assume I am just sitting around reading The New York Times waiting impatiently for the opportunity to evaluate a colleague. Not very likely. It is incomprehensible to me that the individuals who select external reviewers, probably because of some perceived stature in the field, then go ahead and assume such a person will drop everything to prepare a careful and thoughtful evaluation.
  • Read everything the person ever wrote. The sending along a four-inch stack of reprints is just a waste of your money and my time. Most of us are just not going to read all this stuff, especially if we are given a short time frame. If the candidate is stellar and worthy of promotion, at least to professor, we have probably read the good stuff already.
  • The "reminder." Sometime close to the deadline, if you have not yet submitted the evaluation, the requestor will inevitably send a reminder that the review is due "Friday." Yes, I know the deadline is approaching. I also know you want it Friday to reduce your own anxiety -- it is not like someone is going to spend the weekend reading my thoughtful prose. But the reminder would not be as aggravating if it were not for...
  • The complete lack of courtesy after the review has been submitted. Here is my scoreboard for this year. Seven requests for external reviews; five reminders, zero acknowledgements that the review was received (even though all were sent overnight -- granted, because I was at the deadline), zero thank you's; and in most years, zero follow-ups reporting that the individual had been promoted or tenured (I don't expect to hear about negative decisions).

OK, so now I have vented. But that will not eliminate the process of impolitely seeking external evaluations. So, now let me propose some minor suggestions for infusing common, professional respect into the process:

  • Ask the reviewer if he or she has the time and would be willing to prepare an external review.
  • Think like an academic. Send the request and set a deadline that fits the academic calendar.  Never send a request in November and expect a response by December; never send a request in March and expect a response by the end of the semester.
  • Prune the pile. Ask the candidate to select no more than three (3) of his or her best publications or the like.
  • Provide a pre-paid overnight mail label. Hey, if you want me to invest my time to do the review, at least invest $19 so you will get it back.
  • Acknowledge receiving the review.  An e-mail or postcard would be just fine.
  • Say thank you. A note or even an e-mail would be fine. I will admit that some colleges can go a little over-the top. Years ago the University of Notre Dame paid me $100 for a review. That seemed a bit too much. However, one university just sent a colleague of mine a $20 gift certificate to Borders as a way or thanking her for her review. I believe my colleague will truly now look forward to doing external reviews for that institution.

I would strongly advise universities and colleges that seek external evaluations to consider all of the above suggestions.  Otherwise, before too long, your requests will evoke the same response that telemarketers get from most people they call, and your response rate will be about the same as those of telemarketers.

Bio

Richard J. Gelles is dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.

 

 

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