Monday, July 23, 2007

(One of) The Deciders

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.


AngryMan said...

Do you give the teaching-school-teachers more credit than research-teachers? I've always thought that they should. As a student, I've enjoyed the teaching schools and the teaching-focused teachers a great bit more than the research-focused ones. Your thoughts?

Female Science Professor said...

Everyone should be viewed in their context. It's just sometimes difficult to know the specifics of the context. I particularly admire professors who do both teaching and research well, but there's certainly room for people who do one or the other best.

Anonymous said...

I'm a postdoc and have never had to do this, but I've read that if you're asked to write a letter addressing whether you would tenure the candidate at your school, it's OK to write something like "My university emphasizes X more than yours in the tenure process, so I shouldn't compare directly. However, I would have no qualms about recommending the candidate for tenure at Comparable (or Slightly Higher-Ranked) Universities A, B, and C." Is this actually a sensible thing to do?

Mr. B. said...

"especially if the letter from the Chair specifically asks if the candidate would receive tenure at my institution."

Aye, and there is the rub.

Mr. B. knows people who were NOT given tenure at places like Harvard, Cornell, etc. who were then given jobs with tenure at other institutions because they were clearly outstanding people.

So it is grossly unfair for a chairperson at a school significantly further down the pecking order to ask such a question...

But it seems that you have sussed the situation out well and are handling it appropriately.



ajowen said...

I'm not sure if this is pertinent but I just got some NIH grant reviews back. Although the grant itself was rejected, the summary comments included some very nice remarks about my track record and the overall idea. Given that by process of elimination you know pretty clearly who the primary and secondary reviewers are, the comments were very encouraging and a good ego boost (esp. given the score.). Now, clearly these people know that I will see their comments, but they didn't have to say what they did (as evidenced by the third reviewer who was merely descriptive). Nonetheless, I can imagine that being able to see the letters for tenure would provide a similar encouraging nod at a critical time in your career. I think the need to balance honesty with the potential that the letter will be read.

How many of these letters do you write each year? How many of the people you write letters for get tenure?

Unknown said...

Another issue is that if the person were at your institution, they may have been focusing on research more and/or working harder if it is harder to get tenure there (and also getting grants a bit easier with the bigger name university). So then you have to wonder if the question is "would this person get tenure at your institution if they suddenly moved there" or "is this person smart/hard working enough to get tenure at your institution if they had been there all along".

Professor Staff said...

The "anonymity" of tenure letters.

I was surprised when a colleague, who was up for promotion to Professor, told me that he was given a copy of the letters the university had received years earlier for his tenure case.

The chair gave him the copies.

It was explained to me this way: when we g up for promotion, we sign a document waiving our *right* to access the reference letters. We never waive our ability to see them, just our ability to *request* them. So if the chair offers to give them to you, you are not violating anything.

This was rather eye opening, and now that I've written a few of these kind of letters myself for external colleagues, I've kept this fact in mind. Luckily, these have so far been slam dunk kind of cases.

Ms.PhD said...

This is another one of those things, I don't see why the practice persists.

I know one lab where grad students and postdocs routinely write the tenure-review letters based on CV and publications alone, and the PI signs his name. It's perfunctory, and all of these people get tenure, even the ones who abuse their students and postdocs and publish questionable data with regular frequency.

If you think everyone takes it seriously, and that it's really meaningful and a good way to evaluate performance and maintain quality at universities, you're kidding yourself.

So I think it's great if there are Chairs who show people their letters. As with paper and grant reviews, I think the 'anonymity' component of the process is a joke at best, and at its worst, really a barrier to progress.

Nancy Langston said...

Do you agree to write the letter if you're not enthusiastic about writing an excellent letter? I typically find an excuse to say no if I couldn't write a strong letter for promotion--but maybe that's not really honest. Who knows. When a student asks me to write a recommendation for them, I also say no if it's not going to be a strong letter (unless they're my own student, in which case it's much more complicated).