Hooray for Elite White Men! External Reviewers for Tenure

(Thursday Post Category: How to Get Tenure)

Today let’s talk about your external reviewers for tenure.

First, since this blog is new, my credentials. In my 15 years as a faculty member at two major research institutions, I worked on 6 tenure cases. On one, I served as the chair of the tenure committee, on the other five, I was, as Department Head, the ultimate person in charge of them.

All of the tenure cases I handled as Department Head were successful.

You probably don’t know this, but the Department Head highly influences the outcome of a tenure case. Yes, of course the candidate’s record is the ultimate criterion. Did you publish enough? Did you refrain from actually harming any students? Did you impress enough people in your field to get those all-important external reviewer letters that claim that yes, you are indeed the long-awaited Messiah of your discipline?

But, in the end, those cardboard boxes in the secretary’s office full of your giant (we hope), unwieldy, many-faceted record of publications, service, conference talks, external reviews, teaching evaluations, advising, and awards, which first went through digestion by your tenure committee, must now be further condensed into one, single, even more easily digestible, 5-10 page statement by the Department Head, before it is sent on to the Dean, the College Tenure and Promotion Committee, The Campus Tenure and Promotion Committee, and finally the Provost. (please note—this chain of command differs slightly on every campus).

And that letter can look pretty different depending on who’s writing it. “Cynthia has published some articles in refereed journals.” Versus, “Dr. Jones has published 5 articles in leading refereed journals in her field, including the top ranked journal in her sub-discipline, with her most recent article winning an award from the Society for Feminist Astronomy.” Get it? Your Department Head can make or break the tenure case, unfortunately sometimes without even realizing it.

I wanted my junior faculty to get tenure, and I worked hard with them from their first years in the department to strategize the dossier they would ultimately submit.

If you’re an assistant professor looking ahead at tenure, you hope your Department Head does the same for you. If she hasn’t so far, schedule an appointment and see if you can light the fire.

Anyway, besides haranguing my junior faculty to PUBLISH, GODDAMMIT and BE SELFISH (topics of later posts), I mainly worked with them on making sure they were accumulating a stable of external reviewers who would write those crucial, terrifying, all-important, make-or-break external evaluation letters.

For anyone who doesn’t know, external evaluation letters are lengthy, detailed letters by famous and influential people in the candidate’s field. They are solicited by the Department Head the spring before the year of tenure evaluation. Ie, usually spring of the 5th year. There usually need to be 5 to 6 letters in a tenure file as it moves forward, and the names come from a list that is generated, usually, in part by the candidate herself, and in part by the faculty of the department. The Head collects a list of approximately 10 names, and works down through them until she has collected 5 to 6 who aren’t on sabbatical, or ill, or too busy, and who actually agree to do the review. The major parts of the dossier are then sent out to these individuals–say, the book and/or a stack of articles, the candidate’s research statement, maybe a grant application or two…. In any case, a pretty big stack of reading.

The reviewers spend the summer reading this stuff, and then write a 4-5 page letter evaluating it, and making a recommendation—is he a leader in the field? Is his productivity what you would expect in the time frame post Ph.D.? Would this candidate get tenure at their institution?

The external evaluation letters are the crap-shoot of the tenure process. Not only the candidate, but the Department Head sweats bullets. You just don’t know. Is the reviewer a nut job? Do they understand the stakes? Do they grasp that the slightest BREATH of doubt can undermine an entire tenure case? If they are, god forbid, foreign, will they be willing to grit their teeth and write the preposterous hagiographical superlatives required in the American tenure letter genre?

And above all, are THEY, the external reviewers, GOOD ENOUGH? You can get all the superlatives you want, but if they come from associate professors from podunk regional campuses, they’ll sink a tenure case just as fast as a bad letter.

The fact is, your external reviewers have to be the BEST people from the BEST schools. And who might that be, you ask?

Elite White Males. From Elite Institutions.

You want White Male Full Professors from Ivy League and equivalent institutions.

Yes, you heard it here first. Make sure by the time you get to your 5th year in the job, you have in your pocket, by virtue of steadfast and committed conference activity and prolific publication and networking, a collection of elite white male full professors (NOT associate) at elite institutions.

In the cases I handled, only one out of the six external reviewers could be at the Associate rank.

And if I sent a list of reviewers up the food chain that contained even one from what was considered an insufficiently illustrious institution, the list was sent back.

Of course not ALL of your reviewers have to be male. But I’ll tell you the truth, if you send up a file with all women, or mostly women, in MOST fields, I’m sorry to say it, it will not be perceived as the strongest file. Sexist. Outrageous. But true.

Because, the fact is, women are perceived as less rigorous.  More (gag) ‘motherly.’  Less critical.

By all means reject this reasoning.  And fume.  And shake your fist.  But if it’s your tenure case–YOUR TENURE CASE– take no, absolutely no, chances.  Conduct your feminist agitation broadly and widely.  But in your tenure case, check and double-check the gender breakdown of your stable of potential external letter  writers.

Granted, this may differ in some fields. Dance, perhaps. Women’s Studies. Even in some parts of a field like Anthropology it can be hard to find enough men! But in most fields, you need to do it.

It’s tricky, because they can’t be what’s called “Too Close” to you. They can’t be a former teacher or advisor, they can’t be a former colleague, and you can’t have co-published with them.

They have to be at what’s called “Arm’s Length.” You can have been on conference panels with them. You can be in an edited collection with them. They can be on the editorial board of a journal you published in. But they can’t be the Editor.

It’s damn hard to come up with 6 such people, but you need to do it. So get out there, and start sucking up to Elite White Men.

Similar Posts:


Hooray for Elite White Men! External Reviewers for Tenure — 2 Comments

  1. Dear Karen,
    I have a great advisor — an elite white male — but I am signing up for your newsletter anyway because I love your bluntness.
    Best Regards,

  2. Is this the same for landing the first job as an assitant professor? I heard that there is a pecking order in the job market. Students of famous professors in top universities are privileged in the job market. If I know the truth earlier, I probably would have chosen famous full professors in my committee.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.