Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: Getting External-Review Letters

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The external-review process for tenure seems daunting. I am wondering if you could answer the following questions: What are external tenure letters? And how do I go about developing "arm's-length" relationships with senior scholars so I can make sure their letters are favorable?

External-review letters are written by established senior professors at peer institutions around the country in support of an assistant professor’s tenure case. At every institution where research is a core element of a tenure case, these letters are required. They are not always required for tenure cases at community colleges or small regional teaching colleges.

In my experience at public R1s, each tenure case required five or six external letters. They had to be from tenured professors at institutions ranked comparably or higher to the candidate’s. Thus no letter could come from a tenured scholar working at a lesser-ranked institution, even if the scholar herself was illustrious in the field. Status was the name of the game. In addition, the majority of external reviewers for any given tenure case needed to be full professors, -- not mere associate profs. In a set of five reviewers, ideally four would be full profs, while one could, if justifiable, be at the associate rank.

External reviewers need to have, as you say, an “arms-length” relationship to the candidate. They cannot be close collaborators or former advisers. They may have never met the tenure candidate personally, but have seen him or her speak at a conference. The reviewer and the candidate may have both participated in a panel at a conference, but can’t have co-organized that panel. They may both have published pieces in a special issue of a journal, but can’t have co-authored an article or co-edited that issue. That is what’s meant by arms-length.

Most of the areas in which a candidate works should be represented, within reason, by the set of external reviewers, and with an eye toward the disciplinary home of the department conducting the review.

Using my own case as an example, I was a humanistic Japan anthropologist who worked on gender and had a joint appointment in the anthropology and Asian-studies departments. But my tenure case was run by anthropology. So it was important that my external reviewers included senior scholars in cultural anthropology with a humanistic bent, one or two of whom were also Japan specialists, and one of whom was a gender specialist. A final tally for my case might ideally have included: two generalist cultural anthropologists, one Japan anthropologist, a second Japan specialist (ideally an anthropologist but perhaps a modern historian or sociologist), and one gender-focused anthropologist.

In all of the departments with which I’m familiar, external reviewers are chosen in a two-part process. The candidate provides a list of approximately 10 names, and then the department generates, in a private meeting of its tenured faculty, a separate list of 10 names. The department chair then narrows the pool down to a list of approximately six names, by choosing the people with the strongest scholarly profiles, at the highest-ranked institutions, representing the proper cross-section of fields. In the candidate’s tenure file, reviews written by scholars from the department-generated list will be starred as such, and given greater weight. Reviews from scholars on the candidate-generated list will be viewed with just a faint hint of skepticism.

A generous and supportive department will find some way to quietly communicate to the candidate that the very best, highest status, and most supportive reviewers will ideally appear on the department-generated list in order to get the greatest benefit from those reviews. A candidate’s allies will engage in back-channel conversations to ensure that happens.

The department chair begins the process by emailing the six chosen reviewers to ask if they are willing to serve. They will not all automatically agree; they may be busy, on sabbatical, on medical leave, or otherwise committed to other tenure reviews. So the chair will likely have to move down the two lists.

Once five or six have agreed, and the list is at least half (and possibly two-thirds) composed of department-generated names, then those reviewers will receive a packet of materials containing the candidate’s publications, CV, and tenure statements. That should happen sometime around May of the candidate’s fifth year (if the institution uses a six-year tenure timeline). The reviewers will have the summer to read the material and compose a detailed, three-to-five page, single-spaced evaluation of the candidate’s published work, overall research program, stature in the field, and potential for future impact.

The department also will ask the reviewers directly if the candidate has a record that would be awarded tenure at their institution. That is the make-or-break question.

In all tenure cases with which I’m familiar (my own, the ones in which I served on or chaired the tenure committee, and, finally, the five that I handled as a department head), the external reviews were the single most important element of a tenure case. One less-than-positive outside review could -- and did -- derail tenure cases. Even a breath of ambivalence was instantly noted and raised up to a major issue for debate. The chair’s job often revolved around massaging and managing external reviews to allow for the most positive possible interpretation of all elements.

Of course, American tenure reviewers generally understand the task at hand very well, and will not submit a review that has any hint of disapproval or ambivalence (unless they are actually trying to sabotage a tenure case, which does, unfortunately, happen every so often). International tenure reviewers, however, do not understand U.S. conventions, and often write letters that are disastrous for the candidate (and the department that supports her), out of an innocent and very reasonable desire to present an evenhanded and objective evaluation of someone’s strengths and weaknesses. In American tenure cases, there can be no weaknesses. None at all.

So avoid international external reviewers as much as possible.

In light of all that, it is imperative that the candidate understand the stakes and craft the initial list of possible names with the utmost care and deliberation. All of the people listed must be reliable, which is why it is best if they are acquainted with, and generally support, the candidate. While strangers can and often do write excellent evaluations (I certainly wrote many), the warmth and enthusiasm that comes from an acquaintanceship is helpful.

How do you cultivate such writers?

The best way is to be active at conferences and other public events on and off campus. When scholars visit your campus to give talks, meet them and go to the dinner afterward. Attend conferences in your field annually, and make efforts to participate in prominent panels that draw a large audience. Take a leadership role in your disciplinary and subdisciplinary units. Junior scholars can take on the role of treasurer or secretary, or can serve on an award committee, without adding too great of a service burden. That kind of participation vastly increases your profile in your field.

In those ways, you become known as an important junior scholar, one with great potential who should be supported. That general reputation will serve you well for the external-review portion of your tenure case.

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