Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Difficult Cases

Requests for letters of evaluation for tenure candidates started arriving during the summer. The process typically starts in the late spring or summer, when the dossier is assembled and the letters are requested, with letter due dates in the early fall so that departments can vote and pass their recommendations along up the administrative chain.

I almost always say yes to requests to write letters for tenure cases. In fact, I think I have only said no once, for someone who was too far outside my field and who had (in my opinion) been quite unproductive. I thought it best if people who were more expert in that field evaluated whether the quality of the papers more than made up for the low quantity of papers; I did not feel confident that I could do this.

Also, I was given a very short amount of time to write the letter, and could not have done a thorough job. I think it is important for these letters to contain something new and informative that cannot be gleaned from reading the CV, so writing these letters can take time.

Declining to write a letter for someone's tenure evaluation can be seen as a blot on their record unless you have a really really good reason for declining. Department and university P&T committees may pore over decline-to-provide-a-letter explanations, trying to determine if the declination reflects a negative opinion. It may not, but some suspicious faculty may still wonder: OK, so this person is really busy preparing for their Senate confirmation hearing, but if they really thought the candidate was great, wouldn't they take the time to write the letter anyway?

So I try to write the letter if it seems at all reasonable to do so in terms of my expertise and/or time.

Although most letters are easy to write in terms of content, some letters involve a bit of agonizing over wording and tone. For me, the most difficult letters to write are:

1. letters that are not entirely positive. In these cases, there is always a question of whether to accept or decline writing the letter in the first place. I think it is important to be certain that a negative letter is also a fair letter. If my opinion is not positive, is there a good reason for this? Do I have the necessary expertise to evaluate an individual's record? Can I be objective, or am I unduly influenced by an irrelevant dislike of the individual or his/her research topics?

2. letters for institutions that are not peer institutions. It is common to be asked to comment on whether the candidate would receive tenure at our own institution. If the candidate is at a peer institution, this is not typically a difficult evaluation to make. For candidates at institutions that have less emphasis on research and/or that have less awesome facilities and/or a smaller graduate program (and rare or no postdocs), this evaluation is more difficult. I've written before about how it can be challenging to state that the individual in question would probably not receive tenure at my institution, but is a good candidate for tenure at Lesser University. By definition, that's a rather patronizing and obnoxious statement. I have seen P&T Committees agonize over such statements, even if the rest of the letter is positive and even if the letter writer is at a university that is famous for eating its young (faculty). These statements are not to be made lightly or without justification.

3. letters for candidates up for early tenure for reasons that are not obvious. Faculty up for early tenure are evaluated by the same criteria and standards as those up for tenure at the normal time; you can't give them a break for not having as much time, nor can you hold them to a higher standard. Some assistant professor superstars get early tenure because they have such outstanding records; it's easy to write glowing letters for them. But what do you do if you get a dossier for someone who looks like they are on track but could really use another year or two to demonstrate that better? What if you look at someone's CV etc. and you have no idea why they are up for early tenure? Unless you are totally off-base with your criteria and standards, perhaps there are some departmental politics at work and you don't know what these are. These are difficult letters to write because you might have been able to write a really positive letter in another year or two, but as it is, you can realistically only write a somewhat vague letter about how this person shows some promise. In these situations, I just write what I think anyway, and let the department sort out its own political situation however it wants.

The letters from senior faculty at other institutions are just one element of a tenure dossier. I think it is worth putting effort into writing the letters, I don't believe that any one letter will either sink or save a candidate. It's just another data point, so I might as well make it a useful and interesting data point, without either over- or under-estimating the value of my opinion.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

I feel embarrassed to ask this question but it would help me to learn the answer. How typical is it to receive an offer of compensation for the work of reviewing a tenure or promotion dossier?

To be clear, this is not an offer of compensation for an endorsement! (Good heavens.) It's for the time in completing a review, whether that review is favorable or un.

Anonymous said...

As someone who knows little about the tenure process can someone clarify who exactly asks for the external letters of recommendation? Is it like manuscript refereees where the candidate can suggest suitable names to an editor, but who may choose some or none of those names? Is it the tenure committee chair, with whom the candidate may have had an informal chat along the likes of "please don't choose him/her, but these would be are fair judges of my work"

m @ random musings said...

with respect to item #2, instead of being patronizing would it simply be more helpful to identify metrics that would disqualify the individual at the, ahem, better, institution that the lesser one doesn't impose. For example, if one reason that an individual did not get tenure is because grants are at the $500K level (and not $1M), it might be a distinction to include. Perhaps the smaller institution thinks of grants in the lower range sufficient. Simply saying "yes" or "no" is really uninformative - the hiring committee should be able to quantify that response with an understanding of metrics at the more prestigious institution.

I suspect, having come from an undergraduate institution with a large, active and prestigious research presence to graduate studies at one with an active but less productive research component, that the smaller institution absolutely does not think of itself on those terms. I have had discussions where students and professors here (at smaller school) will compare the two institutions on similar terms, and I have to gently correct them by pointing out differences in endowments, teaching environment, and organizational culture. Unfortunately, academia, like most industries - is one where people evaluate performance strictly in terms of dollars. Quality of life aspects are often ignored.

Anonymous said...

This brings up a related question of how to choose your recommended letter writers. In my dept, some are chosen from the candidates list and others are chosen from the field by the committee. Do most people leave some obvious names off the list? Have you discussed this before, FSP?

Female Science Professor said...

Anon 2:38: In the US, that doesn't happen (as far as I know). Writing tenure evaluation letters is one of the things we do for 'free', as part of professional service, like reviewing manuscripts and proposals. However, I know of at least one country for which there is compensation for being an international thesis reviewer, so perhaps this occurs for tenure review in that and possibly other systems as well.

Female Science Professor said...

Re. choosing names, here
is the most recent discussion in this blog.

Anonymous said...

I would accept money for reviewing someone for tenure.....and I'd the money is in cash, under the table, and a significant amount, i would write a positive letter.

Anonymous said...

OMG. I am terrified reading this. I'm up for tenure this year and didn't delay my clock for childbirth (though I could have). I suddenly realized I'm up for tenure in year 5 and I have no idea what the process entails, or what I should be doing, or anything.

From faculty orientation 4 years ago, I remember that we get some say in who to ask for letters...

I'm not at an institution comparable to say, Harvard (not the actual school, but that general idea), but a person that I want to know my work more and who is a big name in my field and a supportive person is at Harvard. Should I put him on the list even though there is no way my cv would get me tenure at Harvard (especially since they get much longer tenure clocks at that institution)? Or should I just stick to people at equivalent schools?

It looks like from the "who cares about it" post you link to that the answer is yes. This is really helpful.

I think I am going to spend a lot of time in the next few days reading all your tenure tagged posts! Do you have any other recommendations for someone who has just realized they have less than a year to get a packet in and hasn't given any thought to the process? (like other websites to read...)

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

"I don't believe that any one letter will either sink or save a candidate"

I've never seen one letter save a candidate, but I have seen one letter sink a candidate. Actually, it was an accelerated tenure case, and all the letter did was cause the acceleration not to happen---the person did get tenure at the usual time. In the particular case, I believe that the acceleration was more than justified, but one overly cautious letter writer was enough to hold it up.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info on early tenure decisions; I'm considering taking that route because of departmental politics (and because I've been out for seven years even if only three of them were at an R1), and it's helpful to hear a letter writer's perspective.

In contradiction to your words about earliness being its own higher standard, I have been told that our Big Ten institution holds early tenure applications to a higher standard *beyond* the fact that they're going up early. Which seems highly unfair to me.

Anonymous said...

As someone who recently went through the process (successfully), #2 really sticks in my craw. I am at a middling university with delusions of grandeur. Yet I was asked to provide the names of letter writers, and told explicitly that they had to be leaders in the field, members of the National Academy, endowed chairs holders, winners of international prizes, etc. etc. And the letter writers were asked if I would qualify for tenure at their illustrious institutions. Ha. If I would, why would I now be at Middling U?

I think most of those senior people are aware of the pitfalls of that question and can dodge it more or less successfully without being condescending.

Anonymous said...

At my R1 public Institution, the tenure candidate submits a list of names of potential letter-writers, and a second list of names is developed by the three person Department committee that does the initial evaluation and writes the report. At least four letters, with at least two not on the candidates list, need to be forwarded by the Department Chair to the levels "above" the Department. In reality, there is often some informal and indirect discussion ensuring that the committee is left with some "good names" to chose from, and that anyone with an obvious negative bias is left off. We alsoo solicit letters from graduate and postdoc advisors for Department review, but these do not count toward the total of four and do not count above the Department level.

Mark P

GMP said...

My experience mirrors somewhat that of Anon at 12:00 PM and Anon at 1:24 PM. At my institution, people are strongly discouraged from going up early, and if you want to go up early you have to be significantly better (after the shorter time) than an average person after 6 years.

My institution, and especially department, are very conservative in the letter writer selection business. The candidate must not supply any information on the desired letter writers (he/she is allowed to give one or two names of whom not to ask, if animosity is involved); the list of letter writers is entirely compiled by some designated colleagues from the department, and they shoudl all be NAS/NAE, award winners, endowed chairs at very prominent institutions etc. Also, the letter writers are not supposed to be asked first if they are available to write or not; a list of requestst is compiled, the letter requests sent out and then you wait. And yeah, they send a lot of requests, 10-12, the goal is to have at least 8 letters back.

I have seen cases where this selection of letter writers without any input from the candidate results in letter writers poorly chosen (too far from candidate's area) and too many lukewarm letters ("I've never heard of the guy"), which totally hurts the case. I have also seen one single letter sink the case at the university level, where people may not be from your area at all and rely heavily on what Big Wig (even if an ass) says about your work.

So yes, the letter part is scary. TT people should definitely do the "tenure tour" near the end of TT -- travel as much as possible, meet as many people who have the potential to evaluate you if you haven't already done so. And all the extra invited talks at conferences and seminars at universities look good on the CV. I killed myself traveling in my 5th year, it was grueling but I think it was worth it.

On the upside, I believe most letter writers really try to give an honest and objective account of the tenure case at hand.

Anonymous said...

I been offered a small fee for reviewing tenure packages a few times - often form non-US institutions, the odd time from a US institution.
Maybe $150 or so.
But most times not.

Female Genetics Professor said...

I'm responsible for soliciting the letters of recommendation for tenure/promotion in my department. Candidates are advised to list names of people from comparable (R1) institutions, preferably full professors. (They have to be at least at the rank to which the candidate is to be promoted.) In the experience of my department, "Academic Superstars" are much less likely to respond - unless they know the candidate personally. Imagine how often such individuals must be asked for these letters, and to do a careful and thorough analysis and compose a meaningful letter takes a lot of time!

Anonymous said...

Is it possible to say overtly negative things in letters like these, without necessarily killing the candidate's case? I recently wrote a letter for someone whom I genuinely like and think does solid work, but I did find myself a little disappointed in the dossier. I would have loved to say, "Dr. X is an established researcher in the field, but has yet to do truly significant work that is demonstrably their own." Instead, I just praised the joint work of Dr. A, Dr. X, and Dr. B to let the committee read between the lines.

Anonymous said...

FSP -- How do you feel about a tenure committee describing/explaining why their candidate is going up for tenure "Late" -- for example, if she extended the clock due to childbirth -- in their request for a letter. Do you think the committee should explain the reason for the delay ("She had a baby 3 years ago."???), or just not mention it?

Does the image of the candidate as a mother (or a woman giving birth!) affect some letter writers?! Or, do letter writer's want to know why she is going up "late"?

namnezia said...

I had previously written here about my concerns of asking letter writers whether the candidate being evaluated would get tenure at their institution, especially since the definition of "peer institution" is nebulous. In the comments to my post it was suggested that most letter writers ignore this question, but reading your post and the comments here makes me think that they don't ignore it at all.

Anonymous said...

I've written before about how it can be challenging to state that the individual in question would probably not receive tenure at my institution, but is a good candidate for tenure at Lesser University. By definition, that's a rather patronizing and obnoxious statement.

It is, but the fault lies squarely on the hiring committee. What exactly does lesser university wishes to learn about the fact that the candidate wouldn't get tenure in Walk-on-water-University? Moreover, they already know the candidate isn't that good, so why even ask the question?

Sorry, but I won't blame the letter writer for that opinion, if warranted.

I would expect the letter writer to qualify it thoroughly though: "the tenure requirements at my institution are well known to be among the most stringent in the word. In fact several of our tenure-denied faculty went on to win Nobel prizes. So while the candidate at hand my not be assured of tenure in my institution this in now way reflects on his suitability for a tenured position at your institution. Please refer you to my comments elsewhere in this letter."

Anonymous said...

I've never seen one letter save a candidate, but I have seen one letter sink a candidate. Actually, it was an accelerated tenure case, and all the letter did was cause the acceleration not to happen---the person did get tenure at the usual time. In the particular case, I believe that the acceleration was more than justified, but one overly cautious letter writer was enough to hold it up.

I know of one case like that too. Person went up early, one letter was positive but not effusive, while all others were positive. Committee decided to sit on the case and the candidate withdrew the application. The funny thing is that if the case had not been early, the dossier would have move forward and the candidate would have likely gotten tenure.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

"How do you feel about a tenure committee describing/explaining why their candidate is going up for tenure 'Late' "

A tenure committee is asking for an opinion on whether the candidate is currently ready for tenure. There should be no mention of a timeline at all, unless the case is being made for accelerated tenure, which is usually held to a higher standard.

Female Genetics Professor said...

Our letters soliciting recommendations state specifically that it would NOT be helpful to indicate that the candidate would be unlikely to achieve tenure/promotion at their institution but to address the guidelines that our institution uses - spelled out in the requesting letter.

Tripartite Academic said...

I find it enormously frustrating to have "apples and oranges" discussions in external review letters. It does candidates a dis-service for their institutions to ask reviewers to address the question of whether or not they'd get tenure at the reviewer's institution.

At my institution when we request external reviews we explicitly ask the reviewer NOT to address that question, but rather to comment on the quality of the candidate's research.