Monday, September 10, 2012

Tenure Times

A mid-career reader wants advice about writing a letter as part of the tenure evaluation of a candidate at another institution. In particular:

.. I don't know what the usual length, format, etc. is, and if/how tenure committees "read between lines" for certain cues, i.e. what do I need to do so that I send the intended message without inadvertently compromising it?

I have touched on this topic before, but I don't think I have ever discussed the specific information of length, format etc. My earlier posts on this topic started in 2007, then skipped a few years, then picked up again in 2010 with not one, not two, not three, but four posts on this general topic, then decreased to one in 2011.

Here are my answers to the reader's questions, although of course I hope that others will provide alternative information and suggestions from other disciplines:

Length: One page is too short, but how far you go beyond one page depends on how much substantive information you can provide -- this may or may not be a function of how well you know the candidate and/or the candidate's work. I think it may also be discipline-dependent. In several of the physical science and engineering fields with which I am familiar (and for which I have read external letters as part of the tenure evaluation), 2-3 pages (single spaced, on letterhead, 11-12 point font) is pretty standard, unless someone has really detailed knowledge of a candidate, in which case the letters may be slightly longer (but not by much). In a few other fields, however, very long letters seem to be the norm. For example, I have seen some astoundingly long letters for candidates in the math department. In these letters, the evaluators provided detailed descriptions of every article or other type of work produced by the candidate, in some cases taking us through proofs step by step. Some of these letters have lots of equations and read like lectures. I am not sure that happens in m/any other discipline (?).

Format/content: The request-for-letter cover-letter might provide some clues as to the desired format. Do they want you to address specific questions or topics? If so, you can do this if you want, using the questions as your framework for the letter. Or you can ignore the specific requests and write what you want. One thing that is good to address up-front, even if you are going to be a loose cannon with the rest of the letter/format, is how well and in what capacity you know the candidate. This sets the context for you letter, and is important information for people who will be reading the letter. If you don't have any other specific guides about format and are wondering what to write next, you could pick out a few publications (articles, conference proceedings, or whatever is most relevant) and explain why these are interesting and/or significant.

Something I do look for in the cover letter is whether those requesting the letter want me to comment only on research or also on other things. I may not feel that I have sufficient knowledge of the candidate's teaching and service (the typical 'other things' besides research), so I may not provide an opinion about this, even if asked, but at least I will know what the expectations are. This can be important, for example, if the request is strictly for comments on research/scholarship, in which case you may want to avoid mention of how great this person was on the organizing committee for the Science Conference Workshop Panel Thing. 

I wouldn't worry too much about the reading-between-the-lines issue. Some people do this no matter how you write the letter, and there's no point in getting psyched out about something you can't predict. I have seen letters that I thought were an unambiguous endorsement of a candidate -- letters packed with strong positive statements and substantive examples -- only to have a fellow committee member say But if they really thought X should get tenure, they would have put the word "very" in front of "spectacularly outstanding pioneering genius superstar".

So, don't worry about it. If you want to send a mixed message with both positives and negatives, just be clear about this and about your final opinion (Do you endorse this person for tenure or not?). If you want to be entirely positive, use lots of awesomely positive adjectives. And if you think the candidate does appallingly bad and pointless work, I am sure you can find some equally awesome adjectives to convey that. If you think they are mediocre, say so.

Probably the biggest pitfall -- in terms of sending a message you don't intend -- is if you compare the candidate to so-called peers. You may be asked to do this, or you may want to do this even if not asked. I refuse to do this because I think it is nearly impossible to do it in a fair way, and I have seen a few examples in which a letter-writer wrote X is a spectacularly outstanding pioneering genius superstar just like Z at Other Great University and I therefore support X 100% for tenure at Your University, only to have a committee member say But I think Z is an idiot..

If X is greater than or equal to Z, and Z is an idiot, then X must be.. some answer that depends on who is doing the math. Yes, I realize that this is contradicting my previous suggestion to forget about predicting what letter-readers might do, but I think this particular issue -- that of comparing people -- is a real mine-field.

Is anyone freaking out? Please don't. These are outlier examples that occur and are typically stomped on by the sane faculty members, who, believe it or not, have outnumbered the others in every case with which I have personally been involved in STEM disciplines. That is, I have not seen the outcome veer negative because of irrational read-between-the-liners.

My main advice is: just write a sincere ~2-page letter that has substance to it (examples, incidents) and an unambiguous statement of your opinion at the end and/or beginning of the letter.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I recommend putting the endorsement (or lack of endorsement) at the beginning, supporting it with evidence, then repeating it at the end. That frames the letter in a way that makes it harder for the read-between-the-lines people to ignore your opinion.

I agree that comparison with others is unlikely to be of much use (chances are good that the committee doesn't know the comparison people anyway).

Also, don't try to guess what the standards are for tenure at a different institution—if they are not explicit in their request, you can say whether or not the person would have gotten tenure at your institution, or what additional information you would need to see to determine that.

Pagan Topologist said...

One university (I am not going to identify it) apparently has a policy that a statement like: "I was not familiar with Dr. X's work, but after reading the work submitted, I wish I had been. This person is a brilliant rising star who will be a major contributor to the field within the next few years." is a negative letter, since if the candidate were any good, the reviewer would have heard of him/her.

I find this absurd, but the viewpoint does exist.

The reader who wrote to FSP said...

Thanks, FSP.

Anonymous said...

I never know how you are supposed to deal with the different levels of different institutions. In my university they told me they hate when they read something like "the candidate would not get tenure in our top institution but it is fine for yours". However, it is obvious that many great people that get tenure in my university would be denied in MIT, Berkeley,etc. I recently had to write a letter for a colleague in a university that ranks pretty low. I know he would never get tenure in my university, but he is fine where he is. How do you phrase this?

GMP said...

I know he would never get tenure in my university, but he is fine where he is. How do you phrase this?

I have seen this conveyed. People simply say "In my opinion, candidate deserves to get tenure at Your Institution." There is simply no comparison with the letter writer's institution. Sure, you don't know what the criteria at the candidate's institution are, but they asked you for an opinion, and your opinion is that s/he should be tenured where they are. I think this is fair and avoids the patronizing/obnoxious "not good enough for us, but good enough for you" statements.

mathgirl said...

Thanks so much for the timely advice! I've been tenured for a couple of months and I have been already asked to write a tenure recommendation letter!

Anonymous said...

Or try this: imagine that the provost has a substance abuse problem, and has mishandled the case of the candidate in question from the beginning, doesn't like the candidate, doesn't like the candidate's department chair, and needs the case to go down for some sense of personal vindication with a good measure of ass-covering thrown in.

Know that the provost will extract parts of the letter that you are writing in justifying his or her recommendation that tenure be denied. If you do not think that the candidate should be denied tenure, read and re-read and re-re-read your letter, looking for things that can be lifted out of context by a malicious incompetent in ass-covering mode to justify his or her decision not to tenure the person that you think should get tenure. If you know any mendacious jerks with substance abuse problems, get them to read it for you, pointing out how they would sink your colleague.

I really think that much of the time, bad things happen because good and reasonable people fail to imagine them happening.

I think FSP is right that most of the time, there are enough people there to prevent such nonsense from occurring, but sometimes, the bad guys get lucky.

In my next life, I am going to be an employment lawyer specializing in tenure-denial litigation at elite private schools.

Anonymous said...

I'm in a different field, but I have no trouble with the comparisons to other recently tenured scholars. I assume I am writing those sentence not for the Department but for the people in other fields on committees or in deans' office who may not know the standards in a field. I say " X at Ivy This got tenure with slightly more articles and a similar book, Y at Big State got tenure with one low-profile book and one more ambitious one, Z got tenure at Sterling College and writes more but perhaps less innovatively than your person" etc.