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Whether or not to award tenure to a faculty member is an important question that requires detailed analysis by the candidate’s peers and superiors. In order to compile a robust and objective profile of the candidate, many universities solicit recommendation letters from academics within the same discipline from other institutions.

The work and expectations involved in writing an outside recommendation letter can vary greatly, and the information needed from the external reviewer is not always spelled out by the institution or committee requesting the recommendation. To help external reviewers get a handle on the art and science of these situations, The Chronicle of Higher Education in September published “To Tenure or Not To Tenure,” written anonymously by a professor at a major research university, which serves as a guide for writing external recommendation letters.

The article deals with a range of questions, from basics of “who” and “why” to more detailed “do’s” and “don’ts.”

“Who gets asked to write external letters?” the article asks. “That seems like a simple question. It’s not — mostly because the answer depends on the culture of the institution or department. And that culture can change over time depending on the people involved in the tenure-and-promotion process at various administrative levels.”

The article goes on to answer questions about the appropriate length of recommendation letters; the most important content to include; whether evaluation committees “read between the lines” of reviewer comments; and how to avoid sending unintended messages.

“The biggest potential minefield in terms of sending a message you don’t intend is if you try to compare the candidate to his or her so-called peers,” the article says. “It is nearly impossible to do that in a fair way. I have witnessed several instances in which a letter-writer wrote ‘X is a spectacularly outstanding pioneering genius superstar just like Z at Other Great University and I therefore support X 100 percent for tenure at Your University,’ only to hear a committee member say, ‘But I think Z is mediocre.’”

The article goes on to say that, although external reviewers’ recommendation letters are supposed to be confidential, writers should assume the tenure candidate will see the letter or be briefed on its contents, and should endeavor to write in a way that is balanced and objective.

The full Chronicle of Higher Education article is available here:

Content originally published on Learn more about Interfolio’s acquisition of Data180 here.