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Monday, May 14, 2007

Tenure Letters

Tenure is back on the blogosphere front page, with recent posts at Volokh, Moneylaw and Balkinization discussing the pros and cons of the entire idea of tenure.  I'll save my thoughts on that for future posts (assuming I can come up with anything even modestly original to say); for now I would like to raise the issue of external scholarship review letters as part of a candidate's tenure file.  I've been asked to write a number of them, and on occasion I've gotten my fingers burned by writing too negative a letter. 

By "burned fingers" I mean e-mails from P&T committee chairs not very successfully hiding their annoyance with me for not, well, getting with the program and fully supporting the candidate. So what gives?  Is there a culture out there that says you're not supposed to write critical tenure letters?  Or an academic version of the Republicans' Eleventh Commandment (not to be confused with the Eleventh Amendment, which always seems on the verge of overwhelming everything else between 10 and 12) -- if you're chosen by a school's pro-candidate forces to write a letter, thou shalt not criticize?  If there is such a culture, then why even bother with them? 

On that point I'm reminded of what someone once said of Nelson Rockefeller -- (I'm paraphrasing here) if he said you were the best assistant he'd ever had, it meant you were doing OK, and if he said you were doing fine you should have your desk cleaned out by the end of the day.  Do tenured faculties read in between the lines of a moderately favorable tenure letter to conclude that the scholarship really isn't that good?  If so, I could use another copy of that memo -- and in all seriousness, the lack of such a memo means that these letters are being written (and maybe read) in all sorts of divergent ways, to the detriment of fair consideration of tenure decisions.

On reflection, I think part of the problem is when I'm asked to draw conclusions in my letter, such as "please tell us whether you think the candidate's writings satisfy XYZ School of Law's requirement that tenure candidates have demonstrated paradigm-shifting brilliance."  Do I really have to?  Or can't I just point out what I consider the article's strong and weak points, and let XYZ's tenured faculty make that ultimate evaluation?  This wouldn't completely resolve the problem, but at least it would (in theory) give reviewers a clean shot at a straightforward evaluation, without having to make the ultimate call about whether a candidate deserves tenure.  If nothing else, it would take a crutch away from honest but lazy faculty members who aren't willing to struggle with such a (literally) inconclusive letter and filter its findings through their own understanding of their school's tenure standard.  On the other hand, of course, everyone knows there's no such thing as a lazy member of a tenured law school faculty, so I guess I'm just being lazy myself.  But if that's true ....

Posted by Bill Araiza on May 14, 2007 at 09:43 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Cranky tenure letter writers often blame tenure committees' lack of collective spines for what is really a legitimate problem with the tenure letter itself. The two major problems are (1) mixed signal letters and (2) argumentative letters. (1) Mixed signal letters - It's rare for a committee to contact a letter writer because they're concerned that the letter is too critical if the letter writer actually recommends against tenure. Rather, I've seen too many letters that attempt to split the difference and that is frustrating. For example, tenure letter writers sometime author overly critical letters that conclude with a recommendation of hire. What the tenure committees are left trying to discern then is whether the writer is just a critical person, but really does recommend granting tenure, or whether the recommendation is not genuine and the critique is what they should pay attention to in reading the letter. (2) Argumentative letters - Another problem is when the tenure letter writer tries to argue against the candidates arguments by citing their own work. That is appropriate for a public forum, but it seems when you are evaluating someone else's fitness for promotion, the criteria shouldn't be whether they agree with you or whether you can convince the faculty that you are right on an argument in which reasonable people could disagree. The tenure committee has to try to figure out whether this is an issue of truth or basic knowledge that the candidate screwed up or whether the tenure letter author is just miffed because the candidate didn't parrot (or cite favorably, with proper homage) their own arguments. Even if it's fairly obvious to the committee that the tenure letter writer is just being argumentative and egotistical, the problem is the letter is now in the file and they have to work hard to convince the university committee that the tenure letter should be discounted as petty jealousy rather than a legitimate critique.

Posted by: Anon | May 15, 2007 12:15:34 AM

I can't tell whether Anon thinks "cranky tenure letter writers" are the norm or the exception, but in my experience the norm is to discuss both strengths and weaknesses of the candidate. In most instances, letters that gush unequivocally are not credible, especially when other letters in the file present compelling evidence of weakness.

A colleague once told me that the purpose of tenure letters is to provide evidence that tenure committee can use to support its judgment of the candidate, whatever that may be. Whether that is wise, I am not sure, but I suspect that it explains a lot about tenure letters.

Posted by: Gordon Smith | May 15, 2007 3:20:28 AM

A colleague of mine once explained to me that tenure letters often were an exercise in grading olives. Having once stocked shelves in a grocery store, I knew exactly what he meant. I never saw a can of olives marked "small." Rather, the olives always came in sizes like jumbo, extra jumbo, and super jumbo. The trick is to know that "jumbo" really means "small."

Posted by: Bob Lawless | May 15, 2007 11:11:48 AM

"please tell us whether you think the candidate's writings satisfy XYZ School of Law's requirement that tenure candidates have demonstrated paradigm-shifting brilliance."

Are you kidding? I personally saw this candidate shift three paradigms in the past five years. When any of us here at Harvard Law School come across a paradigm that needs shifting, we call him up. And he'll be a great social addition to your faculty. At a recent square dance, he personally shifted it into a lindy hop. Of course we had to wait for a few of the older professors to die before we could be sure that the paradigm had really shifted, but they obliged us and by the end of the evening the square dance had gone the way of phlogiston. Although I wouldn't go so far as to say that we would give him an appointment on our faculty, let's face it, you're not Harvard and neither is your candidate.

Posted by: Anthony D'Amato | May 16, 2007 12:29:24 AM

I would be interesting in hearing what types of concerns legal scholars might cover in a tenure letter, given that my experience is in another, but related, field. I assume that letter writers dont touch on teaching or school service, but focus almost entirely on scholarship. What materials do you typically receive from the institution? A vita, I'm guessing; but do you get all of the applicant's publications or just a selection? Does one receive a list of citations to the prof's work or other indicia of "impact"? Finally, do letter writers engage in comparisons between the applicant and other law profs going up for tenure or recently tenured?

I have heard from a number of sources that the typical standard in law schools is two law review articles for tenure - of course this is an approximation and may depend on a variety of factors. Do any schools require less (um, this means 1) or more?. What about "impact," how is this assessed? Citations? Use in casebooks, hornbooks, or syllabi? In my own field, there seems to be a perpetual debate over "quality" vs. "quantity" in scholarship. How does one assess quality? Answer: you read the work. Rebuttle: after reading it, we clearly differ as to what constitutes "quality". Reality: "quality" is typically based on non-falsifiable assertions and is increbibly subjective and likely biased by one's views on the applicant.

I'd be interested to hear how law schools sort all of this out.

Posted by: anontoday | May 16, 2007 8:18:54 AM

Well, ok, maybe not so "anon today". Don't know how I came to paste my webpage to the "anontoday" tag, but there it is. Of course, I am still interested in hearing your views on these matters.

Posted by: Jeff Yates | May 16, 2007 9:29:35 AM

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