You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Magnifying glass on top of a paper with approval checkmarks; paper is beside smaller pieces of paper, each with a checkmark, as well

Paperfox/iStock/Getty Images Plus

It’s the season again for faculty administrators across North America to send out requests for external reviews of candidates up for promotion and tenure. And even more than in past years, many of those administrators will be unhappy with the responses they receive.

It seems that fewer colleagues are willing to undertake the work, and too many of those who agree to write them produce recommendations instead of evaluations or retell candidates’ personal narratives in their own words. Or they concatenate clichés about the academic enterprise: service workloads are too high (thus making a candidate’s research productivity more admirable), the quality of teaching is excellent (although the reviewer hasn’t observed the candidate in the classroom) and all the places where the candidate published are prestigious (although they lack evidence for such a conclusion).

In my experience, the quality of letters, and with it the credibility of promotion and tenure as a professional process, must improve. I recommend the following foundational guidelines.

Beginning well. Promotion and tenure processes are most successful when a unit’s faculty handbook contains clear and transparent guidelines. Sharing those guidelines with new colleagues early on, and reminding all faculty and staff involved in the process about them, creates reasonable and reliable expectations for everyone. Annual workshops at the unit, college and university levels should confirm what candidates need to know.

Unit guidelines should align with an institution’s identity and status as a research-focused, comprehensive or teaching-focused institution and clarify which of the classical areas of faculty responsibility—for example research, teaching or service—is considered most important. Often enough, published guidelines do not reveal actual practice, which in most cases favors achievements in research over those in teaching.

Making selections. Candidates should think about which colleagues’ publications and methodologies they rely on in their own research and scholarship. Such recognized leaders in the field, including those who are editors of learned journals and book series, will be among the best qualified and credible reviewers. Candidates should also be allowed to make at least one or two suggestions about whom to exclude from serving as external reviewer. That avoids situations where personal animus or toxic professional feuds lead to biased evaluations.

In addition, best practices for a high degree of professional validity will exclude colleagues who may in some way profit from a candidate’s success or have significant ties, including family members, friends, graduates from the same degree program or members of the person’s thesis committee. This so-called arm’s-length rule also often excludes former or current direct collaborators on grants and coauthors or co-editors of publications. Presenting a paper at the same conference or workshop is usually not a factor for exclusion.

Protecting the process. One simple practice helps to avoid conflicts of interest: external reviewers should be asked to disclose any relationship with the candidate and confirm that they can render an objective evaluation. In addition, the unit chair should check online to identify overlooked or unacknowledged connections. For example, it borders on professional misconduct when a candidate excises from their CV the record of a highly positive review of a recent book written by a potential external reviewer; it is similarly deceiving if that external reviewer, asked to provide information on their relationship with the candidate, doesn’t mention that review. Due diligence can avoid most such violations.

Most institutions solicit external reviews with the understanding that, insofar as possible, access to their assessments will be limited to those involved in the promotion/tenure decision. Internal review documents should therefore never refer to external reviewers by name but rather anonymize them. Similarly, institutions might want to remind reviewers that they are expected to keep confidential what they learn about candidates.

Considering rank, prestige, background and experience. External reviewers should be tenured and at the appropriate rank—for example, only full professors should be asked to review a candidate up for promotion to full professor. Some research universities allow only full professors to serve as reviewers even for promotion and tenure for associate professors, insisting such a decision lends rigor and reliability to their process.

Most institutions also expect that reviewers be selected only from their own institutional peers. While that may seem reasonable, as institutional peers will have approximately similar workload conditions and requirements for research productivity, it doesn’t make sense for all academic disciplines. Some of the top creative writers work at small liberal arts colleges, which would not be among the peer institutions for a candidate who works at a research university. Thus, procedures should allow for exceptions to the peer-institution mandate.

Some universities even require that external reviewers be chosen not only from peer but also aspirational institutions—i.e., those belonging to a higher Carnegie classification—in an effort to incentivize productivity. But as colleagues with lower workloads in teaching and service—and higher institutional support for grant writing, travel and research—they may underrate the candidate’s achievements. In addition, selecting reviewers only from the highest academic classification categories increases an already troubling prestige hierarchy: in the words of a study conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Colorado, faculty from “a connected core of high-prestige universities that exchange faculty with each other and export faculty to—but rarely import them from—universities in the network periphery” decide who succeeds and who fails in the rest of the academy.

Some of the best qualified colleagues to be tapped include current and former faculty administrators. They often have a broad and comparative understanding of candidates’ portfolios. Depending on the specific research portfolio, a retired colleague’s letter may be acceptable. Ditto for external reviews from individuals in industry or government, but their voices and focus may vary from the usual academic discourse and thus make them harder to judge. International colleagues should also be considered, but they may also write letters based on different cultural assumptions. I hail from the German system, where hyperbole is assiduously shunned.

Achieving balance and numbers. Most institutions agree that no more than half of a candidate’s external reviewers should be chosen from their own list of suggested scholars. In some places, candidates, unit tenure/promotion committees (or specialty area committees) and the chair each create a ranked list, and then the chair or a faculty committee prioritizes and balances the choices.

In case a candidate works in more than one specialty area, reviewer selection needs to do justice to each area. I have seen the number of required external review letters range from two (at regional comprehensive universities) to eight (at research institutions). Many institutions stipulate minima and maxima to allow for flexibility in between.

Providing instructions to reviewers. In addition to the mandate to reveal one’s relationship to the candidate, if any, external reviewers should be given unambiguous instructions as to which kind of information the university desires. Statements mentioning the institution’s Carnegie classification help external reviewers stay on task with a clear horizon of expectations. The area in which external review is most necessary and helpful (not every unit and institution have qualified experts in the candidate’s specialty field) is a reviewer’s detailed discussion of the samples of productivity the candidate submitted with the portfolio. Instead of offering vague general assessments, reviewers should be specific about these samples, contextualizing them within existing scholarship and evaluating their originality, methodology and impact on the field.

Practices vary when it comes to whether reviewers should be asked to make an actual recommendation for or against tenure and/or promotion. My view is that while conditions at peer institutions may be similar, they are never the same, and institutions should never outsource the final decision on an indefinite appointment—tenure—to external colleagues instead of their own faculty and administrators. Even sharing one’s unit’s complete tenure/promotion guidelines with reviewers doesn’t shift this responsibility away from the internal process. As specialists in the field, the task for which external reviews are best qualified is to compare the candidate under consideration with others in the field who are at similar stages in their career.

That said, even if institutions expressly request that external reviewers not make a specific recommendation at the end of their letters, many reviewers will do it anyway. That’s because their own institutions may ask for such recommendations, or because they confuse their task as evaluator with that of a recommender. It is a truth universally acknowledged that few faculty members accept invitations to write an external review unless they think the candidate has a decent case. This is one of the major issues with the value of external reviews: If, as Karen Kelsky once pointed out, most reviewers understand the stakes of the genre, they may simply “write a letter that does everything possible to ensure [a positive] outcome.” Yet it is still possible, and necessary, to be judicious and critical about certain aspects of a candidate’s scholarship and express doubts about its impact and quantity or quality without that constituting, as Kelsky claims, a form of “sabotage.”

Finally, make the task achievable for your potential reviewers by offering them ample time to write their letters. The first requests for review should go out in February or March. Reviewers should get their materials by May and should have until early August to complete their letters.

Considering teaching and service. This article focuses mostly on the evaluation of research, scholarship and creativity, and here is why: while a candidate portfolio includes research samples—such as final products that may be read and commented on in full detail—an external reviewer will have a much harder time evaluating efforts in teaching and service. Course syllabi, peer evaluations of teaching or lists of committee assignments only offer partial and indirect information about the actual performance and workload involved. The detailed primary knowledge on teaching and service to the department resides at the unit level, and external reviewers can therefore only offer a general appreciation—not a true evaluation. That may also be the reason why more teaching-focused institutions need fewer external reviewers.

Paying external reviewers. Research indicates how bias, inconsistency, difficulty in finding reviewers and the slowness of our peer-review process for academic publications would decrease if faculty received extra remuneration. Deborah J. Cohan extends this to external reviewers, stating unequivocally, “They’re serving as consultants and should be compensated.” I am not entirely convinced, especially because that might lead to well-heeled institutions simply pricing out poor ones as everyone competes for the best qualified reviewers, especially in smaller fields.

Using letters thoughtfully. Let’s say you have received a full set of external reviews and the reviews follow the best practices described above. Now it is up to the unit tenure and promotion committee and the chair to use them thoughtfully. Instead of simplistically selecting all the best adjectives (“excellent,” “impactful,” “prestigious”) or the juiciest sections (“I encourage you to hold on to this outstanding colleague”), internal reviewers should discuss any serious questions the external reviewers have raised. As a participant in the unit level review, see if you share the concerns or can offer explanations, based on the deep knowledge available at the unit level. If you don’t respond and explain, reviewers at the college and university level will be left without valid answers, which may lead to abstentions or negative votes simply because of insufficient information.

And remember, it’s OK to raise probing questions and concerns as part of the process. Most such professional negotiations will lead to a positive outcome. However, while problematic issues should have been (and perhaps were) addressed during annual reviews and the faculty-to-faculty mentoring process, the tenure and promotion process needs to remain open to the possibility of a negative outcome. Not every candidate meets the requirements needed to become a tenured faculty member. That’s even more true now: the percentage of tenure-track faculty at U.S. institutions has decreased to around 30 percent nationwide and 50 percent at Research-1 institutions.

Establishing and Sustaining Safeguards

If we don’t believe that some candidates do and others do not deserve the privileges that come with academic tenure, why would we engage in external review processes at all? And without robust review processes, how do we explain to those outside the academy that we deserve the privileges afforded by tenure? These issues make it essential that invitations and instructions to external reviewers underline the evaluative ethos of their letter and that repeating the candidate’s personal narrative in their own words defies the very purpose of including an external and independent voice. Flat, indifferent and formulaic letters will further undermine our claim to establishing and sustaining our own standards and guidelines for evaluation.

Indeed, I am afraid the day is near when a reviewer will feed a colleague’s portfolio into ChatGPT because they are convinced that writing an external review letter is the kind of routine task that might as well be automated. If we don’t take our own processes seriously, I guarantee nobody else will.

Richard Utz is senior associate dean for faculty development in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Next Story

Written By

More from Career Advice