Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Tenure system is broken but not in the way that you think (Anon Guest Post)

This is an ANON guest post. Even I don't know who it is! They emailed me asking if they
could post on this topic, I said I would need to see the post. I did and it was fine.

I have written many tenure/promotion letters before. But this summer, I was especially inundated with requests. Thinking about my past experiences with such letters, I started to question their value.

For those unfamiliar with the process, let me explain. When someone is applying for a research job, they typically need to have recommendation letters sent on their behalf. Once someone is hired in
a tenure-track position, they then need to get additional letters each time they are promoted (in the US, this will typically occur when someone is granted tenure and again when they are promoted to full

Now, I know from experience that recommendation letters are scrutinized very carefully, and often contain useful nuggets of information. I am not questioning the value of such letters (though
they may have other problems). I am focusing here only on tenure/promotion letters.

Let me fill in a bit more detail about the tenure/promotion process,since it was a mystery to me before I started an academic position. (I should note that everything I say here is based only on how things are
done at my institution; I expect it does not differ much at other US universities, but it may be different in other countries.) First, the department makes a decision as to whether to put forward someone's
case for promotion. If they do, then a package is prepared that includes, among other things, the external recommendation letters I am talking about. After reviewing the candidate's package, the department holds an official vote; if positive, then the package is reviewed and
voted on by higher levels of administration until it is approved by the president of the university.

The external letters appear very important, and they are certainly discussed when the department votes on the candidate's case. However, I am not aware of any cases (in computer science) where someone who was put forward for tenure was denied tenure. (In contrast, I am aware of a very small number cases where a department declined to put someone forward for tenure. In such cases, no letters are ever
requested.) Perhaps more frustrating, this seems to be the case even when there are negative letters. In fact, I have written what I consider to be "negative" letters in the past only to see the candidate still get tenure.(To be clear, by academic standards a negative letter does not mean saying anything bad, it just means not effusively praising the candidate.) This makes be believe that these letters are simply being used as "checkboxes" rather than real sources of information to take into account during the decision-making process. Essentially, once a department has decided to put someone forward for promotion, they have effectively also decided to vote in favor of their promotion.

Letters take a long time to write, especially tenure/promotion letters, and especially when you are not intimately familiar with someone's work (even if they are in the same field). But if they are
basically ignored, maybe we can all save ourselves some time and just write boilerplate letters (in favor of tenure) instead?


  1. It's just not true that promotion and tenure is automatic at most schools and weak letters are often the cause for a decline. Nobody likes to advertise the ones that don't make it so you don't hear about it as much. So take your letter writing seriously or you may hurt someones career.

  2. This is a provocative suggestion! It sure would be useful to know what the tenure rate really is, although that's a bit complicated. What fraction of faculty hired into untenured positions go up for tenure? What fraction of those that go up ultimately receive tenure? What are the details of a faculty member's scholarly record, etc. that predict whether they will seek tenure? What details predict whether the department endorses that request for evaluation (regardless of how the department ultimately votes)? Etc. The value of tenure letters may be low in the end because so much of the information they contain is actually available through other sources. Or, they may be low-information for most people, but crucial for a small subset of faculty, e.g., those who work on controversial or unpopular ideas, or who have unusual records.

    Anyway, this is a good topic to think about, but I'd suggest we not rush to throw them out before really understanding what the data say about them.

  3. The value of the letters may depend on how the university structures its P&T process. At the two I have worked at, candidates are reviewed at some stage in the process by faculty from other disciplines. These faculty, in my experience, take the external letters seriously.

  4. I completely agree with Lance. Tenure is not automatic, even after letters are requested. At least in my experience, promotion committees scrutinize letters extremely carefully, looking for specific evidence of research quality/impact that may only be visible to experts in the candidate's subfield. And yes, I've seen cases denied after letters were submitted. As Lance says, take your letter-writing seriously, or you may hurt someone's career.

  5. I am the anonymous poster. I do take letter writing seriously -- so seriously that I give my actual opinion even if that opinion is negative. All I'm saying is that I've never seen it matter.