Annoying Summertime Pursuit Numero Uno: Writing Tenure Letters

12 June 2012 at 1:54 pm 4 comments

| Nicolai Foss |

OK, it is June and high season for tenure letter requests. I have written tons of these letters within the last decade or so, and I confess that I find this activity increasingly annoying and the tenure letter institution increasingly hard to fathom. Deans will write me, saying that I have “been identified” (well, yes, in the sense that I was on someone’s shortlist, and you just picked me) as an “expert” (hmmm) in “X” (X may be strategy, organization theory, HRM, knowledge management, entrepreneurship — even organizational behavior, but not yet, alas, sociology), and I have “three weeks” to write up my letter (and I have nothing else to do in June?) for “Dr. Doe” (who didn’t bother to ask me whether I would write such a letter).

I once brought up the issue of compensation for at least one day of intense work effort with a dean, but that was not well received. However, at least for us Euro professors the “what’s in it for me” question is quite real. Euro schools typically don’t use the tenure letter institution (INSEAD and LBS do, but they are “Americanized” schools), and we get zero credit for this service. (Euro schools tend to pay for comparable services, BTW). Still, when I bring up these issues, righteous types will say things like “”Nicolai, citizenship isn’t tit-for-tat” or lecture me on “generalized reciprocity.” However, the argument that ultimately made me continue writing these letters, rather than turning requests down, was that apparently people are harmed by someone’s refusal to write the letter. 

So, I do it. But I reserve the right to bitch and whine. And speculate on the rationale of this institution. What is really its purpose? Anyone can produce a list of half a dozen people (close colleagues, former advisors, friends …) and get them to write nice letters. What kind of objective assessment is produced by some dean picking people from such a list? Is this empty ritual? Or, is there some underlying efficiency rationale?

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. William Sjostrom  |  12 June 2012 at 2:50 pm

    The “Dr. Doe” probably didn’t ask you because he did not have much choice in the matter. You were either picked by one of his supporters who hoped you would be supportive, or by one of his enemies hoping you would help stick a knife in Dr. Doe’s back. And you can bet that the letter will be distorted one way or the other.

  • 2. Randy  |  12 June 2012 at 6:55 pm

    Nicolai, I feel your pain. As chair of our department promotion and tenure committee, I must solicit 10 letters or so for each candidate in partnership with our Director. ( I also have to write 2 or 3 each year in the same manner as you.) After the committee reviews the dossier, I have to extract the collective wisdom of the letter writers and the useful, quotable insights from the most thoughtful of them. So I am grateful for good citizens like you who fall into this latter category.

    All of the departments that I am familiar with in the US will solicit 50% or fewer of the letters from the candidate’s list. The rest must come from a list generated by P&T committee members, the chair, or other administrator. And to maximize the value of that list, I choose senior people in the field, often with a chair or named professorship, from “peer or better” institutions. These letter writers carry more weight with the 3 layers or evaluating committees and the line managers: chair, dean, provost.

    So, carry on, Nicolai. In the spirit of appreciation for your commitment to this unremunerated but vital summer function, I will buy you dinner at the next opportunity.

  • 3. Peter Klein  |  12 June 2012 at 7:08 pm

    “[T]he argument that ultimately made me continue writing these letters, rather than turning requests down, was that apparently people are harmed by someone’s refusal to write the letter.” Indeed, at our institution the packet of letters includes a cover sheet that also lists those who were asked to write and refused. Of course, it’s impossible to distinguish someone who declined to write because he couldn’t think of anything good to say about the candidate from someone who declined because he was vacationing in the Himalayas for a month. Hard to come up with a separating equilibrium.

    So, there are definitely inefficiencies in the system, but Bill and Randy are right that it isn’t the fault of poor Mr. Doe.

  • 4. Michael Leiblein  |  13 June 2012 at 8:35 am

    These observations reminded me of some comments written by Richard Feynman on the topic of review letters. I looked up a letter written by Feynman on the topic and reproduce it below for everyone’s entertainment. While entertaining, Feynman’s letter points to a more serious issue where the faculty are unwilling or incapable of “evaluating” others work. This seems most likely to occur in “fractured” and more “inter-disciplinary” departments where there is less interaction and perhaps more diverse norms regarding what is high-quality research.

    In any case, here is a letter from Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the beaten track (page 144).

    “This is in answer to your request for a letter evaluating Dr. Marvin Chester’s research contributions and his stature as a physicist.

    What’s the matter with you fellows, he has been right there the past few years– can’t you ‘evaluate’ him best yourself? I can’t do much better than the first time you asked me, a few years ago when he was working her, because I haven’t followed his research in detail. At that time, I was very much impressed with his originality, his ability to carry a theoretical argument to its practical, experimental conclusions, and to design and perform the key experiments. Rarely have I met that combination in such good balance in a stduent. Was I wrong? How has he been making out?”

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Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein, Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgment: A New Approach to the Firm (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
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