Hypothetical choices

Aug 15 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

There is a significant amount of variety across universities in how they deal with the tenure process. In some places everything is closed off to the candidate until the curtain is pulled back with a handshake or kick in the ass. In others, there is more communication along the way. In a small subset, this is taken to an extreme. The more I learn about the variation in the tenure process the more I wonder what I would choose, given certain choices.

My questions for y'all today are along those lines:

1) Would you chose to read your external tenure letters (those solicited from people outside the university)?

2) Would you want to know who the people writing those letters are?

3) If you did read the letters and were given the option to exclude letters you did not think supported your case, would you?

I'll post my thoughts in a bit.

11 responses so far

  • frsmas says:

    1. We explicitly choose to either waive/not waive the right to see the letters. This is stated on the first page of the packet before it goes out for review. Almost everyone waives the right. It would be useful to know the people that you should avoid asking letters from, but otherwise it is better not to see them.

    2. Not only do we know who are writing letters, we compile biosketches for the packet.

    3. It is against the rules to discard any recieved letters ( a practice once used by some department heads to improve packets). But if given an option, I would discard negative letters. With luck that wouldn't lead to a packet with no letters 🙂

  • AC says:

    I do not think it would be a good idea for me to see my letters or who they come from, since that could cause all kinds of awkwardness with friends and colleagues. Better for it to be anonymous, in theory, and that is how my institution does it.

    In practice I am insatiably nosy and if I had any possibility of reading my letters and finding out who they were from, I would TOTALLY do it. Even though it is a bad idea. I am currently trying to hold back from looking myself up on RateMyProfessor.com.

  • anon says:

    Once you are on the other side of this issue, your thoughts on these issues might change (even though I see that you have not yet stated what they are). I do not like to write letters for institutions that allow the tenure candidate to look at the letters. I know that a fair amount of trust is required here, but from my perspective, people take the responsibilities associated with writing a tenure letter very seriously. In other words, I don't think this trust is misplaced.
    Let's talk about a negative case, for example. When you write a tenure letter you know that you are potentially going to have a severe effect on the candidate's life, and you also know that the institution is asking for an informed and honest assessment. If someone can't bring themselves to give an honest appraisal, then they should not write a letter. In fact, this is why declines to write are considered a piece of the puzzle, so to speak. When you sit in tenure-evaluation meetings, it is always appreciated when a letter writer gives a strong rationale for any negative statements, when those of us in the room are sitting there thinking that a case could be made for a negative decision. Every tenure denial is excruciating for all parties, but if that is the decision that needs to be made, the letter writers play an important role.
    So now to answer the questions:1) if I could read them I probably would, 2) not necessarily, although a list is made at the departmental level so you have at least a notion of who these people are, and 3) no way - no exclusions should be permitted; this would in effect negate the whole enterprise.

  • Joshua King says:

    Why be afraid? I'd want to see it all and know who said it to see where I stand. I wouldn't throw anything out. How can you change or improve if you don't get such feedback? I personally think these things should happen twice - once at 3rd year review and once at tenure. Gives an opportunity for revision.

  • odyssey says:

    anon has hit the nail on the head. There are two sides to this. From the candidate's point of view, sure, it would be great to be able to read all the letters and discard the bad ones. But from the letter writer's point of view, no. Like anon, I would refuse to write a letter for someone at an institution with those policies.

  • SEL says:

    We've got sunshine laws here; everything's out in the open. About seven letters are requested. We get to see the letters; we are NOT allowed to discard any letters that were received. The chair's request for letters tells potential letter writers that the subject may see the letters. In some cases, the potential letter writer has declined to write a letter because of this. But in most cases, they do write a letter.

    The lack of a letter is cause for discussion....is the writer refusing because he/she has nothing nice to say, or because he/she has never heard of the person going up for tenure?

    I read mine. They were pretty great.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    As far as reading the letters goes, I don't see an issue with it as long as the writers are made aware. I don't know that the identity should be known because that has a lot of potential impact on the way a letter is written. As far as being able to omit litters, I think that's an odd quirk of some systems that is probably a really poor idea.

  • Neuropop says:

    Having just gone through this (and emerged with a kick in the ass) after an opaque process, I would

    1) Not read the letters, although I would like to have a say in determining who will be solicited for the letters.

    2) See above

    3) No. It is an honest assessment, so long as I trust that the committee did its job and identified the best people to write those letters.

    But the whole process gets really Kafkaesque in some places, especially in interdisciplinary fields. My spouse is going through this and found out that the whole process not only varies across departments within the same University but even for people within the same department. So while some of her colleagues pretty much knew who the writers would be, in her case, she has no clue whether any of her recommendations would be included. And each member of her committee gave her conflicting advice about almost every aspect of the process.

    While I am not particularly bitter over my own tenure decision, I am more than peeved about how the whole process was handled. But that's a story for another day.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    When I retired, the department gave me my file. It included memos written when they were considering hiring me. I was not really what they wanted, but they didn't have any one better, and I would probably be OK. At the time we were not using outside letters for tenure evaluation.

  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    This is looming ahead in a few years and I think about these matters from time to time, and from both sides.

    1) yeah, curiosity would get the best of me. Furthermore, I would want to know what perceived and actual areas for improvement are. They certainly are not always the same thing.

    2) We prepare a list, the department committee prepares a list, and the letters are solicited from the list. A certain # must come from each list, and there can be overlap I THINK (i.e. X is on both lists) but would have to check the handbook. So we get a say. This is good because COI's can be more easily avoided, I suppose. For those above that 'weigh refusals to write'...how would that figure in the calculus? Also, I'll have to find out what comprises a COI for a tenure letter in our handbook and U culture. Others...thoughts?

    3) It would depend on the content of the letters, I suppose. We (jr. faculty) have a group, very frank, and yearly meeting with the Provost to discuss any aspects of P&T. It has been directly stated that 'we ignore it when you get one wackalloon letter'. Anecdotal stories from Sr faculty back that up in private conversations. So I don't stress about it tooooo much. From my vantage it seems that sr. faculty take the responsibility VERY seriously.

    We have yearly meetings to discuss progress and goals as well as a 3rd year review (no outside letters, though).

    All told, it seems that my school has a pretty reasonable and sensible approach to the tenure process. We'll see if I agree with that once I traverse that region, of course.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Kind of what Jim Tomerson said, I came across the letters when I was looking for financial stuff for retirement and they shoved my file into my hands. On reflection, they were fairly accurate, and it would have helped to have seen these about 15 years earlier, so a useful compromise might be to give the packet to those who get through tenure with a ten year cooling off period. Enough time that they could be used to modify behavior tho.

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