Writing Tenure-Review Letters

Many professors frequently write tenure-review letters, but as a community, we’re not regularly discussing how we should be doing so, argues Eric Goldman.

January 19, 2017
 
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Despite their ubiquity, tenure-review letters -- by which peers evaluate the work of a tenure candidate -- remain quite mysterious both inside and outside academic communities, and especially to tenure candidates. Most tenure candidates never see a tenure-review letter before they apply for tenure, so some of their trepidation reflects fear of the unknown. Further, the letters, and the authors’ identity, often remain shrouded from the candidate due to confidentiality, adding to their mystique.

Even after tenure, the tenure-review letter doesn’t get demystified much. Professors (at least in my peer group) rarely discuss how to write these letters or what makes a letter more or less useful. No one taught me or gave me any guidance on how to write such a letter, nor have I gotten any meaningful feedback from tenure committees about how my letters helped, or could have been more helpful to, their evaluation. Many tenured professors frequently write tenure-review letters, but as a community, we’re not regularly discussing how we should be doing so.

As academics, we are trained to gather and evaluate information carefully and follow sound scientific procedures. Yet, ironically, when making tenure decisions -- decisions that have significant long-term economic, professional and communitywide consequences -- institutions rely upon the letters even though the production of such information is undertheorized and probably did not follow rigorous scientific practices.

Norms and practices across academic disciplines vary widely as to how to write a useful and academically rigorous tenure-review letter. But I hope some personal perspectives might help both novices and veterans in the process. With that in mind, here are my top 10 suggestions for writing such letters:

Say Yes if Asked to Write a Letter (Unless …)

Views vary widely about when a professor should agree to write a tenure-review letter. Some of the more common perspectives:

  • Presumptively say yes, subject only to lack of substantive expertise, intractable scheduling constraints or concerns about undue bias toward the candidate. Some professors take this approach but impose a cap on the total number of reviews they will do in a year (to manage the overall time consumed by letter writing).
  • Say yes only when the letter will be positive. There are several reasons why professors adopt this approach: writing a negative letter is even less fun to write than a positive letter; a negative letter entails some legal risk; a negative letter is likely to cause social friction and political tensions even if no lawsuit ensues; and a negative letter could very well harm a colleague’s reputation, career and personal life (and most people don’t want to feel personal responsibility for those repercussions, even if those outcomes are objectively appropriate). Also, some professors might adopt this approach because they assume tenure committees don’t really want negative feedback about the candidate or the potential problems that come with it, so the committee might disregard or marginalize a negative letter. Because of this, writing a negative letter might feel like a waste of time. In order to know if a candidate’s letter will be positive, either you will need to be already familiar with the candidate’s work or you will have to do some advance vetting of the candidate, such as by taking a quick look at the candidate’s CV or a few of their articles.
  • Presumptively say no. Some professors adopt this stance because the author does not derive any personal benefits from writing tenure-review letters or does not feel comfortable contributing to a system filled with implicit biases.

I have adopted the first approach -- i.e., I say yes to requests to write tenure-review letters unless I lack sufficient expertise, my schedule won’t permit me to complete the work on time or I think I’ll have undue bias (a situation I have not encountered yet). I hope you’ll choose the first approach as well. You will earn good karma and contribute to the social good by doing this community service. Plus, in niche academic communities, there may not be enough other qualified reviewers to do it if you don’t. Finally, institutions may keep tallies on how many potential reviewers decline and their reasons for declining, so saying no could implicitly hurt the candidate.

I hope you will think carefully before concluding that you will write only positive letters. The tenure system becomes imperiled if professors routinely adopt this approach. If we cannot provide honest negative peer assessments, Legislatures and other stakeholders cannot entrust us with the power to make tenure decisions. Instead, because we are given such a high degree of academic freedom, every professor should say what needs to be said in a fair and impartial way.

Answer the Questions Asked

Typically an institution will send a letter asking one or more questions about the candidate and including the institution’s tenure standards. (If the college or university doesn’t provide such instructions, it’s fair to ask what questions they want answered.) With explicit caveats as appropriate, I answer every question I’m asked.

Apply the Requesting Institution’s Tenure Standards

The college or university’s tenure standards explain what the institution wanted the candidate to accomplish, so your evaluation should mirror those standards. Because tenure standards vary widely (at least in the details), you should familiarize yourself with those that actually apply to the candidate and then apply them, rather than evaluate the candidate in the abstract, based on your home institution’s standards or some hypothetical ones.

For example, after reading a recent candidate’s works, I felt they were consistently less ambitious than works by the candidate’s pretenure peers. However, when I re-reviewed the applicable tenure standards, it was clear that the candidate had produced exactly the kind of works specified in the tenure standards. Properly (re)oriented, what might have been a less-than-enthusiastic letter about the candidate’s deviations from our community’s norms became an emphatic letter that the candidate had satisfied their institution’s standards.

Be Succinct

I have read many overlong tenure-review letters where the author provided a multipage “summary” of the major disputes in an academic niche or engaged in an extended discourse about how the candidate’s work proves that the author’s own work was brilliant. While some contextualization about the candidate’s academic niche helps readers (especially those unfamiliar with the niche), succinct and on-point letters are more likely to be read in full and thus to be helpful in the deliberation process.

Remember When You Were Young

Typically, tenure candidates are still comparatively junior, which means their professorial skills are still developing even as they are applying for tenure. Therefore, it’s usually not fair to expect tenure candidates to produce work comparable to that of more experienced professors. I try to note when I see a candidate’s improvement over time, but I don’t expect tenure candidates to start their career producing flawless masterpieces (unless the tenure standards require it).

Assess the Candidate’s Oeuvre

If it’s consistent with the questions asked by the institution, it can be quite helpful to provide an overall assessment of the candidate’s oeuvre in addition to critiques of each work individually. As a reader of tenure-review letters, I prioritize these overview assessments. I especially find it enlightening if a reviewer can explain a professor’s competitive differentiation from their peers.

Don’t View Publication Placement as a Proxy for Quality

In the legal academic field, most publication decisions are made by law students instead of peer review. Because of the dubious selection process, a publication’s prestige has, at best, a loose correlation with the work’s merit. Similarly, I have heard enough troubling peer-review placement stories to believe that peer review does not magically fix the prestige/quality correlation. As a result, rather than give credit to the fanciness of each work’s placement, I read each work from scratch with no bias or presumption attributable to its publication venue.

Where appropriate and favorable to the candidate, I try to highlight other quantitative evidence of the candidate’s scholarly impact that the committee (and even the candidate) might not think to consider, such as the number or identity of Twitter followers, Google Scholar citation counts, SSRN download counts or RSS subscriber counts. I think showcasing those alternative data sources is especially important when scholars have high-profile social media presences but outdated tenure standards don’t expressly recognize such efforts.

Offer Constructive Feedback

No tenure candidate is flawless; even the strongest candidates can improve. I think it’s OK for a tenure-review letter to note those areas for potential improvement. First, the honest critiques enhance the credibility of the compliments. Second, if the tenure-review process works properly, the tenure committee will aggregate and share the constructive feedback with the candidate. That should give candidates candid and valuable insights into how their peers view their work.

An obvious caveat: all constructive feedback must be fair. Tenure committees will focus on any negative remarks to determine how significant they are. A possible rule of thumb: don’t say anything negative in the letter that you wouldn’t say to the candidate’s face. At minimum, tenure-review letters are definitely not the place to air dirty laundry or unsubstantiated rumors.

Realize That Confidentiality Is Wishful Thinking

In some cases, the candidate will be given your letter verbatim. However, even when a college or university represents that tenure-review letters are confidential, that’s more of a hope than a promise.

Sometimes, the tenure committee will summarize the letters for the candidate or provide redacted versions. Such summarizations and redactions might be sufficiently abstract that the candidate can’t deduce the identity of individual letter authors. But given the limited pool of likely reviewers (and the possibility that the candidate nominated you as a reviewer), it is hard to give useful feedback to the candidate without providing enough details that might help identify the author.

No matter how vigorously the institution promises confidentiality, the candidate can almost certainly get the letter -- and the author’s identity -- in litigation. Lawsuits over tenure denials are rare, and lawsuits against tenure-review letter authors are rarer still. But they do happen, and don’t underestimate a litigious unsuccessful tenure candidate.

Send Your Letter on Time

It takes a lot of time and energy for a tenure committee to assemble a fair and complete tenure file for the candidate. You can make the committee members’ lives easier by delivering your review letter on time so that your letter doesn’t hold up the entire process or create a hole in the candidate’s file.

To the extent your letter contains serious negative feedback that might surprise the committee, delivering the letter as early as possible gives the committee more time to do any investigations and proceed in a manner that is fairest to the tenure candidate. Dropping a bomb on the tenure committee last minute will add avoidable drama and pressure to an already stressful process.

Few people enjoy writing tenure-review letters, but the effort is a vital service to higher education. On behalf of tenure committee chairs and the entire academic community, let me say thanks for your thoughtful and diligent responses to requests to write them. I hope these suggestions help you through the process.

Bio

Eric Goldman is a professor of law at Santa Clara University School of Law and can be reached at egoldman@gmail.com. A more extensive version of this article is available at http://ssrn.com/abstract=2835021.

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