A reader writes in:
A standard piece of advice about tailoring in cover letters is to explicitly mention faculty at the school one is applying to. This seems smart and right. Here's a problem-schema I've run into several times, though: I'm looking at the University of X. Professor Y, who has been there for six years, looks to have research interests that overlap mine. But on examination, I see Prof. Y has published very *very* little in their six years at X. I conclude that Y may well not be in line for tenure. Should I mention Y in my letter or not? On one hand, it seems I shouldn't -- Y may well not be there, and tying myself to them might hurt me. On the other hand, it seems I should -- it at least demonstrates that I've looked into the faculty at X.
There are variations on this problem involving old faculty members who haven't published in a long time; faculty members who are on phased retirement; etc. Feel free to bring up variations as well as solutions.
It's hard for me to offer determinate advice in this case, as I don't know the concrete details of the case. However, I would caution the reader and other applicants against guessing which faculty are likely to receive or not receive tenure. Allow me to explain.
I have similar thoughts about the other variations the reader mentions. Sure, there may be a faculty member who hasn't published much lately, or who is on phased retirement. However, for all you know, that person may be on the search committee in the department you're applying to--and who knows, they might respond positively to hearing you would be interested in working with them. Once again, it's not clear to me that one has enough information to hang application decisions on judgments one way or the other here.
Finally, I guess my general sense here is that this isn't a particularly important part of a cover letter. I'd be surprised if anyone reading a cover letter really thought you would work with any of the faculty you indicate you'd like to work with. Rather, it seems more like a way to show that you actually bothered to learn about the university and department--something that I think is important in a cover letter, at least for teaching schools.
But these are just my thoughts. What are yours?