Part of the job of being a professor involves writing a few letters each year as part of the tenure and promotion reviews of assistant and associate professors at other universities. It is always a pleasure to be asked to write an easy letter for someone who will obviously and deservedly sail through the process because of their outstanding record.
The most difficult letters for me to write are for not-so-productive faculty at less highly ranked institutions, especially if the letter from the Chair specifically asks if the candidate would receive tenure at my institution. That doesn't seem like a fair question, in part because I typically don't have any information about what the research vs. teaching expectations are at the other place. And there is no good (i.e., non-patronizing) way to write "Professor X would not get tenure at my institution, but he/she is good enough for your institution."
Recently, a colleague and I were discussing our angst about writing these tenure-promotion letters. My colleague uses the standards of our institution, even for candidates at less highly ranked institutions, figuring that the departments can deal with the result by applying whatever spin they want on the letters. I use a slightly more flexible (but perhaps less systematic) approach. In these situations, I try to get a sense from the CV if the candidate has a heavy teaching load and/or a laboratory that required significant set-up time, and use that information to calibrate my adjectives.
A few years ago, a candidate who wasn't supposed to see his promotion letters was shown them anyway by his Chair. I heard about this and re-read my letter in light of knowing that the candidate had read it. Fortunately, I felt fine about what I'd written, even though it had been one of the more difficult letters to write. Since then, I always try to write a letter that I wouldn't mind the candidate seeing, even if the letter isn't 100% positive.
10 years ago