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02/18/2021

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anonymous tenure track at R1

My university (r1 also) requires twelve tenure letters (letters, not requests!), and we have no say over who writes them (our department chair suggests them). So yes, my guess is it is typical, though I think it is somewhat rare to be able to simply give them a list of your preferred letter writers. (I understand that it is somewhat common for there to be a kind of undocumented spoken-only list of suggestions that flows from the candidate to the chair or whoever is in charge of their tenure case, though.)

They definitely don't want your reviewers to be people you know extremely well (they tend to be disqualified) and it is totally normal for the rest of them to be a mix of people you know and people you've never even met. I wouldn't worry about that, except insofar as people might track reputation in part by who they have actually met.

Basically, my sense is this candidate is actually in a significantly better situation than most of us (though I could be wrong about my general sense) in that they get to pick their reviewers and are confident that they have 8 people who can write them strong letters. I think both those things are unusual, so I wouldn't worry about any kind of social anxiety or difficulty now!

I won't speculate a ton about the last question because I have no real idea what the answer is, except to say that my best guess is that that is not the move that most R1 administrations would prioritize in trying to cut costs.

Daniel

I got tenure at an R1 department a few months ago, so I can speak to some of these questions.

While the number of letter requests strikes me as typical (my own university requires at least 10 outside letters), being able to suggest all the people to be asked does not. In my own case, I was able to suggest just a few names, and while I expect they were each asked to write letters, the ultimate decision about whom to solicit letters from is made above the department level, and I don't know who most of the letter writers were.

As for the requirement that people be full professors, I know that at my university there is no such requirement. Letter writers for promotion to associate professor can be associate professors. Only letter writers for promotion to full professor have to be full professors.

From what I've heard from senior faculty who've been asked to write letters, it's completely typical for people to write letters for people they don't know well. In fact, it's preferred--in my own case, letters had to be "arms length." E.g., having had an advising or co-authoring relationship with someone rules them out as a letter writer.

As for the budget thing, you asked for speculation, so here goes. I think the people paying attention to the bottom line are not the people on whatever committee makes decisions about tenure. So even if the president/provost are being stingy with new lines, that doesn't mean the professors who sit on the tenure committee care about that at all. And my impression is that it's very unusual that a case that makes it out of a tenure committee with a positive recommendation gets turned down higher up the food chain. Of course it has happened (e.g., Salaita), but the cases are rare and unusual enough that I wouldn't worry about it. My guess would be that the decision will be insulated from financial considerations.

ash

1. 12 is high but not unheard of for a list. What I haven't ever heard of is actually planning on requesting review from all 12. Usually I think they hope to get more like 8 letters, and they ask for some extras just in case some people say no. However, I have also never heard of the letter-vs.-note distinction before. Usually they want 6-8 full letters! 4 (or as few as 3) full letters and 8 (or as few as 4) mere notes seems like a very easy bar to clear.

2. they don't need to be all people you know or anything. I would ask your advisors, any collaborators, or any people on your list that you DO know well who they would recommend that you ask. People will name people who either already say nice things about you behind your back or who at least like the type of work that you do and are nice people.

3. you don't need to reach out to them and ask if they would mind being put on your list! You just put them on your list. Your dept or college (depends on your institution's tenure procedures) will reach out to them--IF they select them from your list--to ask if they would write for you.

My sense is that people rarely say no. (God knows why, because it sounds like a lot of work.) If they are given the option of just writing a note instead of a full letter, this decreases the chance that they will say no.

If you want to make extra sure they won't say no, you can probably ask one of your colleagues, or whomever recommended to you the people on your list, that they reach out and ask whether they would be willing to serve as writers.

Rosa

I just got tenure at an R1 last spring, and agree with most of what has been said. I made a list of I think 8 names and my department made a list of 8 names, and they needed to get 12 full letters from that set of 16. I did not reach out to the people on my list (although some of them are certainly folks who have written me letters before - like to apply to my job, which I did two years ago), and I have had friends who have been actively told *not* to reach out them, and that all communications should come from the department.

And in terms of speculation about losing lines to tenure... I actually suspect that if anything, the opposite might be true. T&P committees (likely made up of faculty), as well as your own department, might well be worried about *not* getting the line back if you don't get tenure, and so have an incentive to go a little easier. I agree that administrators might want to trim lines, but my sense is that overriding the recommendation of the T&P committee is a big deal and quite rare.

Michel

I'm afraid I can't really contribute here, but I just wanted to note that for AOSes which aren't well-represented in PhD-granting departments, 12 full profs working in the AOS *at R1s* seems like it's going to be very tough, especially if some are excluded for conflicts of interest (e.g. for having been a grad or postdoc supervisor).

(I suppose a lot hinges on whether the R1 designation follows the Carenegie classification or if it's more of an internal scale. And the extent to which international institutions are allowed. But even so, I imagine there are AOSes for which it's going to be exceedingly difficult to come up with a plausible-looking list.)

sometime tenure committee chair

In my public R1, we aim for at least 6 letters. We start with longer lists of names proposed by both the candidate and the department, and have a process for achieving a balance from both lists. Everything is open and the candidate can veto names, see the final list, and even read the (non-confidential) letters. The chair of the departmental tenure committee requests the letters. Letter writers are not told if they were suggested by the candidate or not. It is very awkward that the poster has to ask the letter writers themself (or maybe just feels they should ask before adding names to a list). In our process everything is kept at arm's length and it would probably be considered improper for the candidate to communicate with letter writers.

grymes

It's interesting to see the differences here.

At my public R1, the candidate and the department independently create lists of six evaluators (at the Associate or Full Professor rank). Dissertation and postdoc supervisors are not allowed, and all other relationships must be disclosed. One or two evaluators can be from non-R1 schools (per Carnegie), but a special justification must be provided in these cases. The candidate gets a chance to comment on the department's list. If they object to a name on the list, the department chair can decide whether or not to strike that name. But, in general, letters are requested from all 12 listed names (with the expectation that a few will decline).

awkward assistant professor

OP here

Thanks so much to all who responded! I find this immensely helpful.

I am happy to learn that it is typical to get letters from those who don't know you. That is a big relief, as well as to know I am not expected to reach out.

So I have learned a bit more about my university's definition of R1, and I have to say I am not too happy about it. It includes only USA universities - no Uk, no Canada, etc. That strikes me as ridiculous, and many import people in my field work outside the US. Even more, the US universities it does include leave out a few of the important ones. This is very frustrating, but what can I do? I did cautiously and politely voice my concern about this, which didn't seem to warrant a response from the higher ups - so that is that. I am grateful to at least know I can provide names without feeling awkward, and I am going to ask some of my letter writers who I can't include on the list (because they work outside the US) to give recommendations.

I have one last question to anyone who might know: what are these letters like, as I imagine they must be importantly different from a typical recommendation letter which is often based on a supervisory relationship with someone's work. I imagine it must be common to write a letter for someone whose work the letter writer is not, originally, all that familiar with. Maybe I am wrong about this, but it just seems that given the vast quantity of published papers, that this would happen. So does the letter writer sit down, read a few of the candidate's papers, and then write about it? I have to admit I don't feel great about this as my mind drifts to journal reviewers and how immensely critical they can be about others' work. I do have a very strong publication record, however, my philosophical positions veer off from the main stream and toward the "not particularly popular, somewhat controversial" end of things. I guess I worry one of my writers will be one of the vitriolic reviewers I have dealt with in the past.

Thanks again to everyone sharing their experience and advice, it is much appreciated in a stressful time.

helper

Awkward ...
I once reviewed a file for tenure at a selective liberal arts college that postures as "elite". I was, at the time, at a lower ranked place (by far). But I was recognized as a important researcher in that person's sub-field. I will tell you, people in the profession have good will. I read the person's file - I was already quite familiar with her work, and had even refereed her papers (unbeknownst to the both of us, until then). But I saw my job as supporting a colleague. So I think you should not worry. This person is also on the more reclusive side. But I emphasized their accomplishments, and the importance of what they had published. So assume the wind is on your back.

Assistant prof

OP: from what I have heard, yes, they have to dedicate time to going through the tenure file and reading everything in it, whether they already know of you or not. So it shouldn't matter too much whether you are already on a personal basis with them (in fact, at some universities, you might not be allowed to include people that you are already too close to).

Arka

I'm up for tenure (fingers crossed) and here is what happened: my department (at a R1 univ) required me to provide 4 references and the tenure committee pulled up 8-10 more names based on factors like subject expertise, research contribution, university ranking, etc., and solicited 10 letters.
I was in this exact position. Soliciting letters was very awkward for me, albeit just 4 (sorry). During this process, I approached some professors who had cited my papers believing that they would be aware of my research and would be well placed to comment on it. While I did receive encouraging and positive responses, one particular professor took offense to being contacted by me. He said that is he'd been contacted by three tenure committee, he would have written a letter, but now, felt like the confidential process has been tainted and so would not be able to write the letter. I was shocked and surprised.

In any case, per policy, the tenure committee shared an anonymous summary of letters with me (in case I wish to challenge factual inaccuracies) before recommending tenure to higher management. I was pleasantly surprised to see that most letters were very positive and emphatic. I guess every professor realizes that they too went through the process at some point, so they are usually fair. Also, if a professor feels you don't have a good case, they are likely to abstain from writing a letter than write a negative one (unless they have reason to believe you really don't deserve tenure, which is rare). If your case is strong (the usuals: good research, funding, etc.) you can rest confident.

awkward assistant professor

Thanks Akra that's helpful info and I'm happy to hear that persons might be more sympathetic than I thought.

What do people think of not including non-US universities, and as I now realized, no US universities with religious affiliation - so no Norte Dame, Georgetown, etc. Is this common? There will be enough people for me even without those institutions, but I am just so confused by this. It seems to limit the possibilities a lot, and for reasons that I don't understand (especially because there is also the requirement that letters are from a full professor.) But maybe all this is typical? Perhaps the thinking is that, if someone is a good scholar you can select any list of 30 research schools at random and there will be enough persons who know and think well of their work to write them letters. I didn't count but I'd estimate 30 schools total on the list of acceptable R1 US universities. 9/12 letters have to be from the list.

Michel

Well, when you restrict things that much, there are *definitely* AOSes in which you'll struggle to find 12 active scholars.

Mike Titelbaum (Chair of Philosophy, UW-Madison)

Apologies in advance that I'm about to go on at some length, and that I'm going to invoke some authority. I've read dozens of tenure letters, written quite a few, been on tenure committees, and as chair of my department have now managed three tenure cases. Some of the discussion here makes me worry that people (not just the OP!) have misconceptions about tenure letters that may really hurt them in the process. So here are a few things:

1. MOST IMPORTANTLY, you need to be getting explicit guidance from people in your institution about how all of the questions raised above are answered at your school. In our department, junior faculty are assigned tenured mentors specifically to answer such questions. I realize not every department has such practices, but questions like, "Should I be contacting people asking them if they'll write me tenure letters?" are too important for you to figure out on your own. Ask colleagues in your department, ask your chair, ask the head of the committee in your university that evaluates tenure cases, ask a dean. But ask someone!

2. Tenure letters are not like recommendation letters, and they are not like referee reports. Recommendation letters are solicited by the candidate, and often (except for maybe a dissertation advisor's letter) are a few pages. Tenure letters are expected to be much longer, be more comprehensive, and cover different material. A tenure letter-writer will typically read all of your published work (and sometimes drafts as well). They will dedicate something like a paragraph to each piece, not to talk about whether it should've been published but to give readers a sense of what it's about, how it fits into your overall project, and its quality and significance. They will also talk about other topics like your standing in the profession and reputation. My department has an explicit set of criteria for tenure that we send out to letter-writers, and letter-writers will address whether the candidate meets those criteria. Finally, every tenure letter includes a section about the writer's relationship to the candidate—whether they know them, how they've interacted with them in the past, etc.

3. My institution's rules for tenure state quite clearly that letter-writers are meant to be "at arm's length". Contacting someone to ask if they are willing to write you a letter would violate that requirement for us. Moreover, if someone's written you a recommendation letter in the past, I've been told that would disqualify them at my institution. These policies vary at different schools, so again you need to find out from someone in a position to know what the policies are for you (and/or maybe find your institution's express written policies on the subject). But it is not at all surprising to me that someone objected to being contacted directly by the tenure candidate and asked if they would write a letter.

4. Just to reinforce some things said above, it's totally typical to write a tenure letter for someone you've never met. You sit down, read the work, and evaluate it. Some letter-writers feel a compulsion (which I've never understood) to list both their positive and negative impressions about each piece. Personally, I tend to just emphasize what's good and important about what's going on. I should mention, however, that it's rare for me to be asked to write for someone I've never even *heard* of. Many departments/schools have a requirement for tenure that the candidate have established a national or even international reputation. (Again, this should be written up in a document somewhere!) It would be very difficult for someone to have a national/international reputation in my field without my ever having heard of them.

As the descriptions above indicate, writing a tenure letter is a lot of work. Most of us do a max of two or three of them a year. But we're willing to do it because we've all been there, it's necessary to keep the discipline going, and it's a way of supporting junior scholars in the field. So don't feel bad about it. But maybe some day, if you get tenure, you know someone wrote you a letter, and you meet them at a conference, buy them a beer!

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