Letters of Assessment

A request to write letters evaluating other faculty for tenure and promotion means that other people think you are qualified to make this important assessment. It can also be terrifying, write Joya Misra and Jennifer Lundquist.

July 14, 2016

One of joys of earning tenure is that you become a candidate to write letters evaluating other faculty for tenure and promotion. That responsibility reflects that other people believe you are qualified to make this crucially important assessment. It can also be terrifying, as your evaluation affects the lives as well as the careers of those you review. In addition to feeling gratified for the recognition and shaken by the responsibility, you may also feel uncertain about how you’ll find the time to carry out this sort of assessment.

There is no question that the cornerstone of tenure and promotion assessments is, once again, relying on the free labor of busy academics. While a small subset of institutions provides stipends to those writing external letters, the vast majority expect you to perform this work out of the good of your heart -- and often at the expense of your own research time. We find it to be one of the most important and time-consuming pieces of work in which we engage.

Given the many questions about how to write these letters, here are some criteria and recommendations for faculty writing external letters, based on three key steps.

Step One: Deciding Whether to Agree

It is important to reply (within two to three days) to such requests, as an answer of no requires finding additional reviewers. Yet it can be difficult to know whether to agree or not. You may not feel qualified to assess the scholarship if it is far outside your field. You may not feel certain that you could write a strong letter and worry about tanking someone’s career. You may have a personal relationship with the candidate and feel that it may influence your recommendation. You may dislike the kind of scholarship the candidate does or have strong professional dispute with the candidate. And you may simply have received too many requests.

If an institution contacts you, it means that they deem your qualifications appropriate for assessing the candidate. You need not second-guess their evaluation (unless you are a physicist asked to evaluate a historian, and you suspect that the historian at your institution who shares your name was the intended target). Yet, it is reasonable to consider whether you would enjoy and gain from reading the tenure case. Just as in reviewing for journals, some reviews benefit you as the reviewer, and some feel simply like unnecessary work. If you do not know the candidate, looking at their CV may help you decide whether to agree or disagree.

When you are asked to make an assessment, the university is hoping for an honest opinion. While the colleagues of the candidate may hope that you are more positive or negative than the case warrants, your key obligation is to making a fair analysis. That said, it is crucial to recognize the differences in resources, teaching and service loads, and other factors that may mean that a candidate for tenure at an Ivy League university may have a different professional profile than a candidate for tenure at a public local college.

If you have a close personal relationship with a candidate, you may need to weigh whether it is appropriate for you to do the evaluation. Some universities ask for external letters from people close to the candidate, such as advisers or collaborators, for example, to provide evidence regarding how much effort the candidate put into the collaboration. If the university does not already know of your relationship, however, we believe it is best to avoid providing assessments of candidates to whom you are personally close. While social media appears to make everyone your friend, you should consider whether you have a real-life personal connection. A Facebook acquaintance may not deter a fair evaluation; a yearly conference roommate relationship would.

If you have a personal or professional animosity that might cloud your assessment, you should also say no. The university needs a fair evaluation. If you dislike the candidate because of an interaction or some other negative experience, that might influence your judgment. If you have strong intellectual differences with the candidate’s, your evaluation will likely not be fair. It is possible to fairly and dispassionately see a candidate’s work as poor quality. But if the assessment of poor quality comes out of the theoretical perspective or methodological dispute, despite these perspectives and approaches having resonance with others in your discipline, we see it as inappropriate to use a tenure case to weed these scholars out of your discipline.

How many is too many? It depends on how much you enjoy doing these reviews, how much time you have for your own work and whether your colleagues recognize these evaluations. Many faculty members institute a rule -- for example, no more than two external letters a year. But that can create challenges, for example, when you are asked to write for scholars whose work you know well after already accepting previous requests. The best approach may be to maintain some flexibility but generally limit the numbers of reviews you agree to do. If you turn down a request because you have already committed to too many tenure and promotion requests, or because of other pressing work duties, it is best to tell the chair or dean making the request why you are turning it down. Some universities assume that if external letter writers say no, you deem the candidate a weak one for tenure and promotion.

Step Two: Developing a Timeline

Institutions can make requests for external letters throughout the year, although the most common timing in America is over the summer. Increasingly, we have received requests in April and May, as departments attempt to catch reviewers before they have already reached their limit. Some institutions make requests in September, and senior hires may require external letters for tenure evaluations throughout the academic year. Knowing when you may be tapped can help you maintain limits on the number of reviews you agree to do.

Officials at many institutions ask you to carry out the assessment at one point, forward the file to you at another point, and ask for a letter at the third point. Others ask for a very quick turnaround. (This may be most likely to happen in the case of senior hires.) Ideally, they will give you two to three months to read the material and make the assessment. If you have agreed to do an assessment, it is important to schedule the time into your calendar, as sending these letters in late (or not sending them at all) can have a significant effect on those you are evaluating. If you do not see a time when you could carry out the evaluation, it is best to say no.

We encourage tenure and promotion reviewers to try to limit each evaluation to approximately two days of work (although this can be spread out across additional days, if necessary). While that can be challenging, the idea is to give yourself one day to read the materials (which is most difficult for those assessing writers of books) and another day to write a letter that addresses the necessary points. Knowing that each evaluation requires you to give up two (or more) days of work should also help you maintain clear boundaries on how many evaluations you will perform in a given year.

Step Three: Carrying Out the Evaluation

When carrying out an evaluation, you should consider the letter request and the specific queries the institution makes. While you may (and most likely will) discuss more than the answers to those queries, skipping over questions may make it more difficult for personnel committees to identify how you’ve assessed the candidate. Providing evaluative statements -- particularly ones that are quotable in memos -- are usually the most useful to institutions.

Most institutions will send you the candidate’s vita, personal statement, publications. Some will also include grant proposals and works in progress. A few institutions will limit those publications to a subset of the candidate’s more important works. It is considered good form to read through the materials you receive, assessing the quality of scholarship, although it is fine to read a subset more closely and then browse the remaining work to develop an assessment of the overall package. Most faculty members who conduct these evaluations try to do so thoroughly, given the importance of the task.

Some institutions ask for detailed assessments of the candidate’s publications. Others ask for assessments more of the stature of journals in which the publications were placed and whether the work, broadly, is important. While providing detailed summaries of the publications may help you determine what you think about a candidate’s research, they are not always necessary for a good letter. Effective letters provide a clear assessment of the work, some explanation for how you made that assessment (e.g., providing examples from the published work, or awards garnered for the work) and an insider’s perspective on what distinguishes (or fails to distinguish) the work.

Many of those who evaluate the tenure or promotion case from inside the institution do not know the norms of your discipline or interdisciplinary specialty. They may not know what work is methodologically or theoretically innovative and what work is old hat. You can play a crucial role in helping those from outside the candidate’s field to assess the quality of the work by contextualizing it.

We will add that carrying out these assessments is often enjoyable. It is rare, in academe, to be able to appreciate the breadth and depth of a scholar’s research, and to understand how their ideas have developed over time. While time-consuming, these evaluations are an opportunity to consider how other people move ahead in their careers, which can be generative as you consider your own new projects or research areas.


Joya Misra is professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Jennifer Lundquist is associate dean of research and faculty development and a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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