Ask the grumpies: Writing an external tenure letter

Tenured economist asks:

I was asked to write an external letter for a tenure case. Do you have any advice to share? We don’t use these in our tenure cases so I have never even seen an example! How long/detailed are they usually?

The following is based on external letters we’ve gotten in the tenure cases I’ve sat on so far.  We’d love to hear from the Grumpy Nation for people with more extensive experience and with experience in different fields.

There’s a lot of variation in these letters even from economists.

Usually they’re 1-3 pages long (single spaced with extra spaces between paragraphs, 12 point font, TNR, etc. give or take). Here’s what I’ve seen generally:

You don’t have to give a recommendation yes/no if you don’t want to. If you do, it can either be based on, “They would get tenure at [my university]” or “They should get tenure at their university”

You start by saying if you’re aware of the person’s work if you are aware of it, and if so whether or not you know the person personally and in what context. If you’re not aware of the person’s work you can choose to say that or to not say that.

Then you talk about the different strands of literature and put them in context for the committee. Talk about their quality and how they fit into the broader literature.

If there’s other items they ask you to address like teaching or service, then address those as well. We specifically ask for it to be focused on research and fit within the broader community (so potentially service to the profession if they have any) because we’re an R1.  SLACs, policy schools, and business schools might have different things they care about so if there’s something that the specific type of institution cares about you might address that.  Ex. teaching, media visibility, etc.  If there are potential things you might think would be concerning, like lack of single authored papers, you can talk about that as well and why that may or may not be a concern in this specific case.

That’s really about all there is to it.  The hard part is reading through the articles and figuring out their worthiness, especially you don’t have a helpful overview letter written by the applicant that puts it into perspective for you.

5 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Writing an external tenure letter”

  1. Miser Mom Says:

    As someone who sits on a promotion/tenure committee, I might have a bit to share. At our institution (and think we say this in our letter to reviewers), we do NOT actually want a recommendation for/against tenure. [Especially patronizing are the recommendations which say, “Professor Smith wouldn’t get tenure at our large, prestigious university, but hir work is certainly good enough for your small liberal arts college.]

    What we really do want is context. The people on our tenure committee come from all over the college, so you’ve got scholars in dance, economics, french literature, math . . . all trying to understand whether this chemist has been doing good work. We try to match the content of outside letters with what else we know of the candidate, so it’s not like these letters alone determine tenure. You’re just trying to help us paint the picture of what this person has done.

    Yes, do explain how you know the candidate. That’s important background info.

    What should you say about the work? Here are some questions that we like to try to hear outside opinions on. Is this work in an area that’s mainstream, fringe, innovative? This next question might sound silly, since we have the research papers too, but it helps a lot: what are the papers about, and why is that important (or not)? Do you have an impression of the quality of thought/analysis/interpretive aspect/creativity of these papers? How does the rate of publication compare with other people from the field? Are the journals really hard to get into? (In fact, understanding journal quality is a super helpful section for us). Should the person be shooting higher? In the candidates’ statement about hopes/plans for future research projects, is that reasonable given what that person has done so far?

  2. moom Says:

    Some universities do explicitly ask whether the candidate would get tenure at the writer’s university which is a really silly question unless the two universities have similar missions and rankings. But I’ve assumed I should answer that if they ask it.

  3. Susan Says:

    There was an article on writing tenure letters just yesterday on Inside Higher Ed.

  4. xykademiqz Says:

    I have been on the university cte that is *the* hoop to jump through here (large public R1) and will chair it next year, so I have been neck-deep in tenure letters. My university has a tenure-eval solicitation template that they require all chairs use (with potentially minor modifications) when approaching external evaluators. Here is a rough list of what should be in there:

    1) How do you know the candidate? How long, how close? (Usually the answer is “I heard him/her talk at conferences and we met two years ago, but mostly I know him/her by his/her papers.)
    2) Originality/creativity/importance of research
    3) Productivity w/ respect to norms of field (both papers and grants)
    4) Overall standing as scholar in field
    5) Effectiveness in teaching, advising students, communication of work, pedagocial skills
    6) Would candidate get promotion at your school or leading departments in the candidate’s area and how he/she compares to peers

    In general, I find that most people are very, very conscientious about these letters. They are always at least 2 pages and quite detailed, even from super busy people.

    When people also compare candidates with peers, you see things such as “The candidate is similar to (senior well known) Prof X at Good School at a comparable career stage” or “The candidate is better than A from Uni A, not as good as B from Uni B, and about as good as C and D who recently got tenure at Unis C and D.” Generally people aren’t (complete) douches. If they feel a candidate wouldn’t get tenure at Harvard but should at a (lowly) public R1, they say things such as “I believe the candidate would merit promotion at any of your peer institutions.”


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