tenure letters

Mid-winter through early spring is the season of news and transition in the academic world. Aspiring graduate students are beginning to hear about admissions, like my student K of a few years ago: she just got a sweet deal at a prestigious university. Job seekers are waiting for one of The Calls: either the first one, for the campus interview itself; or the second one, conveying an outcome either joyous or sorrowful. And advanced assistant professors across the nation likewise are waiting for a call or an envelope bearing the most momentous news of all: news of tenure granted or tenure denied.

Here at OPU, I think we deal with tenure in a reasonably transparent and predictable manner. Junior faculty know that they are expected, above all, to produce a scholarly monograph, which ought to be under final contract at the time of the departmental vote. This book can be based upon the dissertation, but ought to be a substantial revision and amplification of that work: our tenure files must explicitly address the issue of how the monograph diverges from the dissertation. In addition, we expect “several” articles in the file, of which at least “some” should be in peer-reviewed, well-regarded journals. (The precise meanings of “several” and “some” is flexible, but if I had to define them I’d say 4 article publications is usual; we like to see at least 2 of them be peer-reviewed research articles. Most of our faculty hit this target: a few have had more, a few less. Assessment of this part of the file often is flexible depending upon individual circumstances. In terms of what counts as an additional publication: book reviews don’t count for anything; encyclopedia entries are discounted unless they are in internationally known “classic” reference works; translations are given some consideration, but not very much. Hence, the non-peer-reviewed publications that count usually are pieces in conference-proceedings volumes. These, of course, often are loosely peer reviewed, but not with the same level of formality as at a top journal.) There must be evidence of thought towards a second book: either some publishing on the new topic (some of the articles, say), or at the very least a detailed prospectus for the new research. The candidate must be a competent teacher: we use student survey data, reports from classroom visits conducted by two different colleagues, and letters solicited from former students (we ask them using enrollment lists from previous terms). Though we do not place a high service burden upon our junior colleagues, there should be basic evidence of good citizenship and willingness to engage in service (since after tenure, we will crush you with service obligations!) Awards, prizes, grants, fellowships, and solicitations to give papers add to the file. I think when I went up I had a freshly-signed book contract, 3 peer-reviewed articles (two of which won awards), and 2 other articles. I also had fine teaching evals, and a better-than-average list of grants and fellowships.

These are fairly high expectations, though I’ve no doubt that there are universities that ask for more. However, the virtue of our system is that these expectations are, I think, clearly communicated to junior faculty. We assign them mentors, and there are several reviews before tenure that reinforce our particular culture of expectations. In addition, we are supportive of all faculty in terms of leave policies (automatically granted after a certain number of terms teaching, and also automatic with any outside funding opportunity). Lastly, while we are a cordial department, we do not require everyone to be BFF in order to garner support during the tenure process. For good or ill, OPU does not embody a particularly strong sense of community, with the result that promotional decisions never, in my experience, turn on issues of personal drama, perceived slights, or “likeability”.

I have seen two people denied tenure here: in one case, it was no surprise to anyone, including the candidate, for the book ms. was not done. This person found another position with a different publishing expectation (more focus on articles), and is very happy there. In the other case, the candidate went forward with strong (though not unanimous) support from the department, but was denied at the administrative level. FWIW, this individual had a polished book ms, but no contract; plus one article in print in a prestigious venue; and another article accepted. Thus the record was problematic, but we felt that a little bit more time would have made a great deal of difference (since there soon would be a book and two peer-reviewed articles). At the same time, we did understand that tenure with the file at hand — only one article out — was highly unlikely, and no one was surprised when the decision came down. This colleague moved and is tenured elsewhere; the book appeared and I believe has been widely lauded. In the long run, we lost someone who now has quite a good reputation.

However, I gather that in many corners of academia, the tenure process is significantly more obscure and marked by surprise decisions, the airing of grudges under cover of anonymity, and general pettiness (check here and here for recent references to irrational decisions). In this light, it is perhaps significant that the one area where I do glimpse certain weirdnesses, upon occasion, is in the 6-8 outside letters we solicit, on average, on behalf of each tenure candidate. In the majority of cases, the letters are supportive (I still treasure a particular comment in one of mine). In some cases, the letters are mixed, offering praise mixed with skepticism, but in a spirit of debate. These sorts of letters are to be expected, and we usually appreciate the honesty of the writers.

Once in a while, however, someone is savaged by a senior scholar in ways that take my breath away. Such letters do not damn with faint praise: they damn with a loud, rancorous catalogue of outrages. They can sound personally aggrieved and affronted that a junior scholar has dared to undertake the project in question: they question the framing of the argument, knowledge of historiography, the topic’s importance or relevance to the field, the candidate’s language competence, the clarity of his or her writing, the form of the footnotes.They take aim at everything they can, and appear to be knowingly formulated with the intent of devastating the person’s career. And it is not always easy to put such letters aside: even if the other writers glow with enthusiasm for the work, a negative letter from a senior scholar cannot be dismissed out of hand. And the situation will be geometrically worse if there is another moderately negative, or even lukewarm, letter in the file that can serve to lend further credence to the screed.

I would strongly urge all tenure candidates who have some input into the selection of their outside reviewers to err on the side of caution. If you have criticised someone in the past, then ask that this person not be contacted, if you have that right at your institution (we do at OPU). Do not assume he or she will regard your critique as a civilized, genteel disagreement: you never know what this person will write about you with the promise of anonymity. Even without prior disagreements, however, one always runs the risk of garnering a nasty letter from someone with an axe to grind or a gate to keep: there’s really no perfect defense against it. Fortunately, these types of letters are rare; but they are very, very dangerous.

P.S. Notorious if you’re reading this: don’t let me freak you out! I almost didn’t post it because I know you’re anxious, but letters of that kind really are not the norm!

14 thoughts on “tenure letters

  1. When I went up for tenure, our requirements were clearly communicated (albeit much lighter in terms of publishing than at your institution). The problem comes when institutions seek to “improve themselves” and change the rules — you have some people who try to impose R1 standards on people hired to teach 3/3 in a comprehensive.

    I must say that the thought of six to eight outside letters for tenure is staggering. Here, the most we’ll ask for in any T&P situation is four. With six or more, it seems inevitable that you’d get at least one crankypants or nitpicker (we knew of someone in the field who would devote entire letters to critiquing the grammar skills and conference attire of individuals).

  2. Squadrato, this is a great post. I think your takeaway line cannot be emphasized too strongly: if you are permitted to submit a “do not ask” list to your Chair, do so, and don’t hesitate to strike people. I submitted a rather long list to my Chair when I went up for tenure, which raised hir eyebrows a bit, but ze fully concurred that it was important to get the right kinds of letters.

    Janice makes a good point that asking for 6-8 letters (as my university does too) almost guarantees that you’ll get a quirky one in the pile. But, if the system works as it should, the other very strongly positive letters will far outweigh any strange ones. (That’s the potential advantage to asking for 6-8 instead of just 4 letters, too.)

    The only thing I’d add to the mix is that in my (admittedly short) experience, it’s not venerable senior scholars who write the nasty, unhinged screeds. Usually, the oddball stuff I’ve seen comes from the recently promoted Associate Prof. who thinks ze’s all that and can pronounce on the worthiness of everyone else. Usually, it’s clear that there is professional jealousy involved, and/or an inability to refrain from judging our candidate by comparison to their own record at tenure. Why these people don’t proofread their letters and/or can’t see how transparently competitive their letters sound, I don’t know. They usually impeach themselves, and we all have a laugh and put them on our mental checklists of people we’ll avoid in the future.

    That said, this behavior is extremely disturbing when it comes from a venerable Senior scholar. Unlike the insecure, jealous near peer, they know exactly what the stakes are and what they’re doing. And that is very, very disturbing to see. (That said, the letters I’ve read from superstars show that they know what they’re doing when they submit a positive review, too. You can tell that many of them may have served as department chair, because you can see them almost feeding the chair lines to use in hir letter of recommendation for tenure.

  3. Actually, we very often get 6-8 thoughtful, positive letters: the screeds by no means come up in every file. However, they are devastating when they do. As a department, we often can contextualize such letters, and decide whether the writer is making legitimate points, protecting turf, or just being cranky. The real problem is when the whole file goes forward to university-wide committees and administrators, who are much more likely to be spooked by a negative letter, and who don’t know the field, its debates, or the people in it.

    And Historiann, I’ve mostly seen these nasty letters come from senior folks, but I suspect that’s because we chiefly solicit from senior scholars in the first place. We ask associates to write once in a great while, but that’s unusual.

    Having said all this, I also should mention that tenure letters can be a very positive experience. I loved getting my letters, which were positive and thoughtful about my work: combined with getting the book out, they made me feel like a real “grown-up” part of the field and discipline. After the too-extended adolescence of academic training and assistant-professorship, it felt wonderful.

  4. I can’t believe you got to see your review letters! Those remain confidential in our files. I heard that mine were really, really great, but I don’t know if I’d want to see them even now. They did what they were supposed to do for me–that’s good enough.

  5. Our policy is to give tenure candidates copies of the letters with the letterhead & signature blocked out; the body is left intact. The writers know this as well, so if they mention anything identifying in the main text, they are aware that the candidate will see it.

  6. When I went up for tenure 20 years ago we could see our files. So I could read what my professional colleagues said, and then what the people on campus said. The outside letters were great, though I am still annoyed by the very senior scholar who said, in the midst of an otherwise very favorable letter “S should have talked about such and such”, which of course I did several pages later. Sigh. But the letters were a great lift.

    But the practice at OPU sounds a reasonable one.

  7. Pingback: Friday round-up: we ain’t got the do-re-mi : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  8. Thanks for the enlightening post. I go up next year… I will be sure to ask my chair about the outside letters.

    But gads, where do you work? That sounds like an unholy publishing burden, even for an R1! Seriously. It seems like either four articles or a monograph would be enough for a junior faculty member to get their feet wet… you know to show that they have promise and will write a great book someday.

    Maybe its just because I work at a state college with a 4/4 load and the publishing requirements are fairly light.

  9. The research expectations are high, but on the other hand my teaching load is half yours. And the goal is not to someday publish *a* book, but to publish several over the course of one’s career: promotion to full depends on repeating the whole process all over again: a second monograph + several articles. And after that, a third book garners a substantial salary increase, etc., etc. We’re reviewed constantly (unlike some places, which stop the reviews after tenure) and truly must “publish or perish.”

    The on-campus work that really kills here is not teaching but post-tenure committee service. It’s higher than anywhere else I’ve ever heard of — half my job is administrative and secretarial work.

  10. Hi! And yes I *am* reading this! ;-)

    Your description of the two denials provoked a wry grin, because denied candidate #2 is me *exactly.* But it looks like (unofficially) I’m on my way to tenure, so no freakouts today. And it sounds like your candidates know from day 1 what is expected. I also assume when I see requirements like the ones you describe that candidates have a lighter teaching load than is normal at my school. (true?)

    But on to your main point regarding outside letters. I’ve always thought when reading student evals that there should be some procedure for tossing out the highest and lowest 3% of the evaluations. Some students will like or dislike you for reasons that have nothing to do with your teaching competence. Seems like the same is true for outside reviewers. What if your school was to solicit 7-8 letters, ditch both the venomous one and the Road-to-Damascus one, but then take the remaining middle letters as gospel?

  11. Oh, and I too saw my letters. Now that the review is a done deal, I wonder if you could give your opinion on something that cropped up. Two of them, respected full profs at R1 universities, closed with the traditional “would she be tenured here” question. They were both smart enough to point out that their universities’ expectations were very different from those of an M.A. regional comprehensive, but both said basically, “If her book were actually under contract rather than under review, she’d be granted tenured at our university.” I thought this was a fair assessment (and perhaps even lowballing their own expectations in order to favor me), but I wonder if some committees might look askance at a qualified endorsement like this?

  12. Hi, Notorious — glad to hear things are going well!
    As for your question: I don’t think a line like that would raise any eyebrows, since it’s basically an accurate statement. At most R1s, a monograph under contract is the chief expectation for tenure, and I think most everyone knows this. I can’t imagine it being a problem at all.

  13. Re: Notorious’s question about the letters that wondered “would she be tenured here?” This is a big mistake on the part of the reviewers, although it’s terribly common. We specifically ask people to assess the quality of the scholarship of the candidate in question, not to say whether or not ze deserves tenure at the institution the reviewer works for, or guess at what our tenure requirements are. (They’re not provided with a copy of our department code.) We’re not asking them to serve on the T & P committee, just to provide a candid assessment of the scholarship as an expert in the field. The question of tenure is for our department and institution to decide.

    But nevertheless, at least half of the people can’t resist making comparisons to what their recent candidates have produced, or what they themselves presented in their tenure files. And consequently, they tend to sound like arrogant blowhards! This also is duly noted (by me anyway!)

  14. Historiann’s point is a good one: don’t volunteer things about tenure at your institution if you are not specifically asked. However, I think that some guidelines for tenure-letter-writers do specifically ask them to address this question. I’m not sure whether OPU’s guidelines do, but I always sort of assumed that this was the case because several of my letters, as well as those of other colleagues I’ve seen come up through the process, address this point. In fact, I think most do, though not all — but of course, some people don’t follow directions well! Also, we generally solicit letters from other R1, “peer” institutions, whose tenure priorities we assume to be in the same ballpark as our own. So, Notorious’ referees may simply have been responding to a specific request, and I believe they did so in a graceful and positive manner for her file.

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