Your External Reviewers for Tenure

I’ll begin with the usual caveat: all tenure processes are local. You MUST research your own department and campus to understand formal policies, informal practices, precedent, horror stories, and so on.  No general advice such as I provide can replace that. My hope that this series of posts on tenure will give you a starting point for your strategizing and queries.

R1 and R2 institutions and elite liberal arts colleges depend on external reviewers for tenure.  Small teaching colleges and community colleges may well skip external reviewers entirely and require only internal letters of support. At institutions that use external reviewers, the import of these letters cannot be overstated.  In my experience as a department head managing tenure cases, there was literally NO WAY that a case could be successful with even a single negative letter. Therefore the process of choosing the tenure reviewers is of utmost importance.

As I’ve already explained, tenured faculty in your department will generate a list of names (about 8) and you the candidate will generate a list of names, and the T&P committee chair or department head will cull this double list into one final list of approximately 6 names, 3 or 4 of which will be from the department, and 3 or 2 of which will be from the candidate. The department names will carry more weight because they are perceived, rightfully or not, as being more objective. As I explained in my earlier post, some departments will secretly strategize with you the candidate to ensure that the “best” people are on the department list, for that reason. If this occurs (and it happens in departments that want to pull out all stops in their support of you), it will be behind closed doors with no paper trail. The department head will have to work to find six people who will actually agree to do the review of your packet, due to other commitments, illness, leave, and so on.

When the list is finalized, the department head will send out your complete packet of publications  – as well as your research summary (in most cases)  – to each external reviewer in about mid-May. The reviewers have until about mid-August to complete their review of all your writings, and write their usually 3-5 page letter evaluating your tenurability. They will typically be asked to include the answer to the question, “would this individual get tenure at your institution?”

Not all departments will enclose the candidate’s research summary with the publications, but generally it’s good practice as the summary allows the external reviewers to have more complete context for the  larger intellectual project of the publications they are reading. This is particularly important because the external reviewer may well not have ever met you before. More on that below.

The research summary (or statement) ranges in length depending on departmental norms, but should fall between 1 and 5 pages in length.  To my mind, 3 pages is ideal. This document may not need to be identical to the research statement you are required to submit for the campus tenure process itself. For one thing, you have to have it completed by May of the year prior to your tenure year. So, it can truly just be a summary of your research record and profile, while the ultimate research statement you produce for your formal tenure file, which should be completed by August or September of the tenure year, may be much longer and more detailed. Remember that the external reviewers are doing this service work of reading and evaluating every major publication you’ve produced uncompensated and out of the goodness of their hearts, so please, keep the summary concise.

The rest of this post is about building the list of external reviewers, because this process is generally shrouded in mystery. Here are some standard criteria:

Must be tenured

Should not be retired/emeritus; there may be exceptions to this, however.

Should be Full Professors, rather than Associate (in cases I handled, out of six final names, 5 had to be Full, with scope for perhaps 1 to be Associate)

Must be at equivalent or above-ranked institutions. Meaning, if you are at an R1, no names can be from R2s or SLACs, no matter how illustrious the individual, and the R1s had to be of equal or greater status.

Should be well-regarded and well-known – tl;dr: the more famous the better as long as the letter is detailed and stellar. (In other words, if Neil DeGrasse Tyson writes for you, but only writes 2 lines, that doesn’t help). In 2011 one of my first TPII posts was titled, “Hooray for Elite White Men” and was about how when I was a department head I was told that I needed to make sure to stack my tenure candidates’ lists with enough white men, as an over-abundance of women or people of color would suggest a weak case. I kid you not.

Must represent your field or fields.  The six names should cover ALL of your areas–for example, as a Japan anthropologist of gender, my six individuals had to include cultural anthropologists, Japan scholars, and gender scholars.

Must not be former teachers in any capacity.

Must not be friends.

Must not be direct collaborators or co-authors.

Should generally be US-based. Out of six letters, one could be international, in all the cases I handled. However, there may be exceptions to this rule depending on your field.

Should be “arms-length” colleagues in the field. Meaning, you know OF them/they know OF you; you’ve met but not collaborated formally, you’ve served on a panel together but not co-organized a panel; etc. It is possible that you may never have met directly.

Know that in the VAST majority of cases, external reviewers understand the stakes perfectly, want you to get tenure, and will write a letter that does everything possible to ensure that outcome. If a person does not support your tenure, they generally will refuse to write for you in the first place. Overt sabotage is VERY RARE.

However, there are issues with international writers, who do not understand American conventions of hyperbole and encomium.  I once had a German writer who proposed to “provide a careful analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of XXX’s research.”  This would have been disastrous. There can be no “weaknesses” mentioned in an external letter. For better or worse, these letters, while engaging substantively with the scholarly project, can include only supportive sentiments and engagement. Beware putting international scholars on your tenure writer list for this reason.

Know that the slightest breath of ambiguity or ambivalence in any letter will be closely examined and vigorously discussed at every level, from department through campus-level committee. It is your department head’s job to provide proper context and rationale for the external letters, particularly anything slightly ambiguous.

Some final notes: you as candidate NEVER formally ask someone to serve as a tenure reviewer. Rather, you merely grow your reputation and network organically through active conference participation, meeting scholars who visit campus, publishing, and so on.  At the end of five years of that, you should have an excellent sense of your field(s), and be able to list off ten names of Full Professors in your main and secondary disciplines, teaching at equivalent or above institutions, whose work intersects with yours, with whom you have a nice nodding relationship, or know merely by reputation.  Those are your potential tenure reviewers. To repeat: tenure reviewers do NOT have to have met you before. Gathering and editing that list should be one of your ongoing tasks as an assistant professor.  It is good to consult on your list and this process with a trusted senior colleague on campus, in an ongoing way over your probationary period.

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Your External Reviewers for Tenure — 6 Comments

  1. This is interesting reading for a UK professor who is sometimes asked to do reviews. Does this mean that I should only agree to do reviews if I’m able to be 100% positive? It is a huge amount of work to do this properly – to read the material and write a good letter – and that effort seems wasted if a balanced report is not really wanted, but just ‘hyperbole and encomium’. As far as I’m aware nobody I’ve previously written for has been denied tenure, but this does make me very wary of ever agreeing again.

    • Yes, Stuart, that is exactly what it means. Now, it’s a fine line. They DO want you to engage with the work substantively. I watch a lot of UK TV and read a lot of UK lit, and know that the stereotypes of Americans there are that we are all “THIS IS FANTASTIC, YOU ARE SO GREAT, IT’S ALL SO AMAZING!” — and that is NOT what I mean here. One does actually engage with the work in a meaningful scholarly way and not in hyperbolic uncritical praise. Buuuuutttt, having said that, you cannot go into “weaknesses” per se. I get that this is hard to parse. If you’ve written a bunch of letters that helped people get tenure, you are probably doing it right. But, if you have a trusted senior American academic friend in your field, it might be useful to have them skim one of your letters! I’d be curious to hear what you find out.

      • Thanks for the reply Karen. I think I do have a reasonable understanding of the US context, and have asked for advice before. But I’m not sure I’ve ever been 100% positive about anything, and an external view of this process is that I’m being asked to commit a large amount of time to something where those asking don’t want my real assessment.

        There are parallels in the UK too – the closest is I can think of is very competitive grants. Having been on decision panels, where you are trying to work out how to give only a few grants to a large number of very or equally deserving applications. Any criticism in referee reports could be the reason for something to be knocked back. It’s insane, because a referee who knows this has to think ‘do I want this person to get the grant’ and write a reference to try to achieve that. But there is a lot of wasted work and less than frank references being written.

  2. What would you suggest that I do when my tenure committee chooses people who really aren’t in my field – and who wrote damning letters instead of recommendations?

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