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Tenure Reviewer 2

For me, it depends, in part, on whether my letter will remain confidential or not. There are universities that provide the letters to the applicants. I have in the past refused to write for such cases because I do not wish to deal with the potential fall out if my letter is less than stellar.
I also do not think that you should only write a letter if you already know it will be glowing. I know the work of many people in my field, but for very few junior scholars do I know it in enough detail to know immediately if I can write a glowing letter. I receive a packet of papers/books from the department, carefully read them, and then write my letter on the basis of my careful review of their materials.
I might have an idea beforehand about what I think, but many times I have been surprised - sometimes I come to realize that I had missed some of their best work. Other times I realized that the one paper of theirs that I read that was excellent is actually all they have.


Absolutely give an honest assessment. I am sickened by the thought of someone being too easy on someone in this situation when there are so many deserving people who did not get a chance to get tenure.



OP here. I wasn't suggesting giving a dishonest assessment, or going easy on someone. I was wondering whether the choice should be between giving an honest good one vs. none or between giving an honest good one vs. giving an honest less-than-good one.

recently tenured

I'm told that when one cannot write a positive letter, the norm is to decline rather than to write a negative letter. At some institutions, heads keep track of the number of declines, as well as the reasons given for declining (e.g. too busy). This is information ultimately gets included in the tenure file. A large number of declines with no particular stated reason is interpreted negatively. I'm also told that some people violate this norm and write negative letters, but those people eventually develop bad reputations.


FYI Leiter Reports asked this question (are declines looked upon negatively by promotion and tenure committees?) last year. Readers may find the responses helpful: https://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2023/04/how-do-departments-interpret-negative-responses-to-requests-to-do-tenure-reviews.html


As an outsider (i.e., a junior person on the way out who has never been involved in any way in a promotion), I find the use of the term 'ethics' here extremely puzzling. If agreeing only if you can write a glowing review is the 'ethical' thing to do here, that would seem to be because the quality of work should not be relevant to whether the person gets tenure. Do you believe that? Because I do not. Or, perhaps you think declining can do all the necessary signalling (concerning quality) that needs to be done? That makes a bit more sense to me, especially if actually writing the letter will be very time intensive, and the signal is going to be sufficiently clear. (I imagine the signal clarity varies a *lot* by the requesting institution.)

new to the game

I have no past experience of being a reviewer. But as a junior faculty member who will go through the process, I think it is important to keep in mind that tenures are not granted by our profession but granted by people's home institutions. When one is asked to be an external reviewer, they provide opinions on whether a person deserves tenure at their home institution.

Of course, there are different ways of doing this, directly or indirectly. I know that some external reviewers are provided with specific tenure standards, while some are asked if this person would have had tenure if they were at the reviewer's institution. But note that the real question they want to ask is not whether this person deserves tenure at your school; rather, this comparison is an indirect way to see if this person deserves tenure at their own school. If you find this comparison does not help, then please do not do it.

currently sitting on the committee

@new to the game I don't think that's quite right--at least at my "striving" R1 institution, it is important both that one's letter writers be overwhelmingly from peer plus institutions (so for us, ivies and super elite US universities like MIT, etc., oxbridge, etc., my department can make a case for any place ranked higher than us in the PGR too). And, here, one of the most important things in the whole tenure process is what the letter writers say about whether you would be tenured at their school--but that's really what our administrator/tenure and promotion committees want to know, not what your view is of whether the person deserves tenure at our school. My university only wants to tenure people who WOULD be tenured at universities that are more elite than we are. So that question is very important. Maybe we aren't disagreeing, but I just wanted to note that answering this question directly in letters can be crucial for people who teach at my sort of institution.

new to the game

@currently sitting on the committee Thank you for the info, especially this--

"My university only wants to tenure people who WOULD be tenured at universities that are more elite than we are."

Now we need to talk about the ethics of this process :)



"If agreeing only if you can write a glowing review is the 'ethical' thing to do here, that would seem to be because the quality of work should not be relevant to whether the person gets tenure. Do you believe that?"

This comment seems to assume that reviewers are very good judges of quality. I don't think this is obviously true. After all, peer review gives ample evidence that it's not obviously true. So, there's a scenario in which I think the work is not good while it in fact is. I think that that scenario is very important to consider and that it's far from obvious what one should do about it. And it's precisely because I think quality of work should be relevant to whether a person gets tenure that I worry about it.


The Professor is In has some thoughts on this I recently read which seems to answer some of your questions: https://theprofessorisin.com/2018/06/15/your-external-reviewers-for-tenure/

Her tl;dr is basically that norms are that you write a glowing letter or else you decline to write a letter completely.



What forms of assessment do you think are reliable vis-a-vis quality? Apparently it is not other working professional philosophers. I assume you do not think experts in other disciplines, or administrative higher-ups, are better judges. So what then? Students? The lay public? The long view of history?



I think I'm reliable, which is why I referee papers for journals. But the stakes are high with a tenure case, esp. for faculty who cannot easily just get hired elsewhere after a tenure denial. It's not uncommon to think that higher stakes require greater justification. Since I am not *perfectly* reliable and I work in an area of philosophy where there is sometimes disagreement about what's high quality, I think it's perfectly fine to think I'm a reliable judge and yet have grounds for pausing. Remember that not all people are made of straw.



I do not understand your reply. You say higher stakes require greater justification – I am inclined to agree. And yet the idea under scrutiny here is whether, in this high-stakes situation, the 'ethical' thing to do is to deploy quality assessment *less* – to limit assessment to only those cases where the assessors feel strongly, and positively, about the quality of the person up for tenure. In other contexts (e.g., safety checks for airplanes), this sort of thing would be obviously bizarre and (selection) biased.


I’m at a R2, and I think some of the considerations about external reviewers are different here than suggested above in ways that change what the task is. We are expected to have 5 letters (up to 12 can be on the large list though usually it’s more like 10, but the chair invites 6 people first and goes down the list if people decline). No list of who declined is kept or discussed in tenure deliberations. Also, writers are explicitly told their assessment is not about whether this person would get tenure at either the letter writer’s institution or the tenure-case institution (though they do receive our tenure standards). I have also seen letters that are generally positive but not glowing fail to tank someone’s chances because we go back to our standards (which don’t require the kind of reputation or influence you might need to get tenure at Harvard; rather, we require a consistent body of publications that count as “good”). So, the main use of external reviewers (at least at the tenure level, not at the promotion to full) is to ensure that we are getting subject matter experts assessment that the work is professional quality since we are quite diverse department methodologically as well as subject-wise.


I'm also at an R2. We do not have any norms about what happens if a letter writer declines. I think the point of the letter is to get an external, scholarly assessment of the quality of the work. This is important and should be done honestly (positively or negatively). Sometimes at smaller schools (think about a program with like 6 faculty or whatever) there may be no faculty in the department whom can evaluate the work since they all work in different areas. One wants to be careful in writing one's reviews, but they should be honest reviews I would think.

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