In the past 10 years or so, it has become common at universities for the teaching part of tenure and promotion dossiers to contain support letters from students and others who have observed the nominee's teaching. This is of course in addition to the 57 letters of reference required from eminent scientists, emperors, and other celestial beings who can comment in detail about the nominee's transformative research.
Teaching is also evaluated using statistical data from the official Teaching Evaluations, but teaching involves more than classroom work; teaching also involves advising graduate and undergraduate students in research, and these kinds of teaching activities are typically evaluated via reference letters as part of the tenure and promotion process.
Some of the teaching-related reference letters are written by current students, including graduate advisees, who comment on their advisor's advising and teaching skills. It may well be that an Assistant Professor doesn't have graduated PhD students in time for the tenure and promotion evaluation, so the only students who can write letters are current (or at least very recent) graduate students.
I don't think it is a good idea to ask current students to write these letters, as it puts them in an awkward position. Furthermore, it is presumably in the student's best interest that their advisor get tenure (or a promotion), so the student may not be able to be objective.
Perhaps the main purpose of these letters is the fact that they exist. That is, the fact that a few students are willing to type out a few nice paragraphs about their advisor might serve the purpose of showing that the nominee is able to function as an advisor of student research. Can we assume that if an advisor is abusive, evil, despotic, and/or corrupt, this would have become apparent by other means before the tenure dossier is constructed? And if we can't assume that, is asking students to write letters for their advisor's tenure file the best way to get this information?
Additional letters for the teaching part of the tenure file come from faculty and others who have attended the nominee's class as observers. Not long ago, I read a teaching support letter from a professor who had visited one class on one day last year. Somehow he managed to write two pages of detailed prose about this one lecture, but I did not find the letter particularly compelling given the limited data base. I think these letters can be useful, however, if there has been a systematic effort to observe the nominee teaching different classes of different sizes and different levels at different times during their probationary faculty epoch. The main purpose of these visits would be to provide constructive advice, if needed, but another outcome can be an informative and authoritative letter for the teaching dossier.
I think the teaching dossier should contain a statement from the nominee, a list of classes taught and students advised (graduate and undergraduate), teaching evaluations, and, if possible, a letter from a professor or staff member who has served as a teaching mentor to the nominee and who can speak from the experience of observing and advising the nominee re. teaching.
It could well be that I have been too long in professor mode to appreciate the opportunity given to students to provide input into the tenure process of their advisor. Perhaps some students want to have this opportunity and do not find it awkward. Unless someone persuades me otherwise, however, I do not think that current or even recent students -- i.e. those who still need letters of reference from their advisor -- should be asked to write reference letters for their advisor's tenure or promotion evaluation.
10 months ago