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I often write promotion letters for faculty going up for tenure or promotion to full professor. For those who are unaware, this involves reviewing a candidate's entire portfolio including research statement, publications, teaching, funding, etc., and cannot really be done properly without reading several of the candidate's papers.

Recently I received a request of a new sort: I was asked to go through the entire process associated with a tenure letter, simply for a third-year review of a tenure track assistant professor at another institution. (If it matters, the request is from a good R1 school, but not a super-elite ivy or equivalent.)

To me this seems a terrible practice. It is already a ridiculous waste of time that some schools ask for 15 or more promotion letters. Figure that letter each takes a minimum of one day for a well-established senior professor to write. Could the marginal information provided by the 15th or even the 10th letter possibly be worth that much of the community's time? We are already suffocating under our peer review obligations; adding the huge additional burden of writing promotion letters for routine reappointments strikes me as ridiculous. Yet I'm loathe to refuse, lest I hurt the candidate.

Is this a practice that others are seeing in their fields, or is this some dean's stupid idea that is being forced upon a single unfortunate college?

Edit: If this is uncommon, we should nip in the bud. Bureaucracy, like entropy, is monotone increasing in this particular universe. Thoughts on what I should do would also be appreciated, though I suppose that's technically a separate question.

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    Not seeing it in mathematics. – paul garrett May 13 '15 at 17:31
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    At the University of Michigan, the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (which includes my department, mathematics) not only doesn't require outside letters for third-year reviews but explicitly prohibits asking for them. – Andreas Blass May 13 '15 at 18:46
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    @NoahSnyder, I think it's a weak argument to say that "oh, this substantial increase is not as large as it might have been". It also seems-to-me to occur at a big transition point for people, so that to be judged how silly one is/was at 17 is not so helpful in gauging what one should be doing just a few years later, say at 19, in making choices. – paul garrett May 13 '15 at 23:05
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    Penn -does- collect such letters for 3rd year review, at least in the computer science department. – Aaron May 14 '15 at 0:47
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    +1 for " Bureaucracy, like entropy, is monotone increasing in this particular universe." A sad truth! – Lorenzo Donati supports Monica May 14 '15 at 5:36
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As in my comment, I've not heard of any such thing in mathematics, ... but hadn't really been worrying about it.

It appears a gross inflation of things, yes, and wasteful, and so on, as in other comments.

Yes, I fear a refusal could be used against the candidate, by anyone interested in pushing against them, despite the problems with this general direction.

It occurs to me that this grossly inflated situation could be occurring due to some political infighting at that other institution, so that some faction hostile to the candidate is "playing chicken" with the supporters of the candidate, and/or with the candidate themself. This is already a bad thing. So, yes, anyone's refusal to write a letter could be aggressively interpreted against the candidate (despite the usual convention that it is possible, in principle, to refuse to write a letter, due to other commitments... which could in an adversarial situation be aggressively re-interpreted...)

Is it possible to get some side-channel information from the other institution and department, without compromising yourself or the candidate? If so, a "what the heck is going on?" is irresistible to me. If you have no side channel available, I think you might have been "succesfully" extorted into writing a letter.

Sufficiently long after the letter, some systematic push-back should be harmless to the candidate, but would be informative, ...

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    Yeah, I was thinking the same thing as in your last paragraph. Write an appropriately positive letter now, and then in a few months, after the review is complete, send another letter to the chair / dean expressing your displeasure with their system. – Nate Eldredge May 13 '15 at 22:17
  • @NateEldredge, yes, and one could make the point that it will antagonize or alienate outside letter writers if they're asked over-and-over, pre-tenure, pre-tenure-again, and then tenure. Doubling or tripling the total mass of letter-writing? – paul garrett May 13 '15 at 22:20
  • Seeking more information is a good idea. I think I'll either call or email the chair (I don't know him personally, unfortunately) over the next couple of days and try to find out what is going on. I'll probably end up writing the letter, but this gives me a chance to express my displeasure with the process while doing everything possible to help the (very deserving) candidate. Depending on how the conversation goes, I may also write the dean of that college to complain, but will wait until after the decision has been made. – Corvus May 13 '15 at 23:03
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    There is one math department I've heard of that's done this (a Top 20 school). This department has some issues which has caused people to leave (both voluntarily and not). @Corvus, yes you should write a very good, careful letter. I believe some people in this department try to use these things to either count against tenure cases or stop people from even going up for tenure. – Kimball May 14 '15 at 0:06
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I don't know whether it is common, but a version of it, a 4th-year review, exists (determined by department pattern of administration) at Ohio State, and it's actually useful. It gives the candidate a good feel for what the actual tenure review will be like the next year, and alerts them to problems that can be remedied. Letter writers are usually asked to update their letter for the real review (though not if they wrote a crappy letter for the 4th year review). Similar letter-inflation exists in Alaska, Vanderbilt.

I take the point that this is a form of bureaucracy- and service-inflation, but it actually gives reviewers a longer time to read the papers, in case they are not familiar with the candidate's work. The problem-detecting function is quite valuable, I would say.

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    We had it such letters for a while in math at Indiana, but don't have it anymore. – Noah Snyder May 13 '15 at 22:38
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    You make an interesting point. This gives the chair -- and possibly the candidate -- the opportunity to screen potential letter writers for the all-important tenure case. Unfortunately, the chair could use this for good or for evil, so to speak -- cherry-picking positive or negative reviewers depending on what outcome is desired in the tenure decision. – Corvus May 13 '15 at 22:53
  • It does, though there may be independent protections (e.g. if the chair does not get to pick the reviewers). My experience was that it was always used for good, but I could imagine a heinous department. – user6726 May 13 '15 at 23:00
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    @Corvus There are always ways for an evil chair to skew the process. – JeffE May 15 '15 at 12:20
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If this is a request from outside your university, tell them no, and tell them why. If this is from inside your university, get with your department chair and go to the dean in question. You don't want to seem uncollegial, and you don't want to be seen as refusing to write a letter for this specific person, but I think you're right to want to cut this off now.

  • Thanks -- I've clarified in the main text that this is at an outside institution. If it here, I'd go to the chair of the department in question first, and to the dean if that failed. – Corvus May 13 '15 at 19:42
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    Would you be concerned that refusing to write a letter would have a negative effect on the candidate's career? Or if so, do you consider that is acceptable collateral damage? – Nate Eldredge May 13 '15 at 20:48
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    @NateEldredge I'm not concerned in the least about my own career. But a negative effect on the candidate is absolutely not acceptable as collateral damage. And there is a perception that declining to write a tenure letter is a negative thing. At least at our institution you have to list everyone you requested a letter from whether they provide it or not. That's why I feel so stuck here. – Corvus May 13 '15 at 21:39
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    @Corvus, I can't tell how put off by this you are, but depending on how bad it is, you might draw a few lines in the sand. Send the chair a strongly (but politely) worded note declining on principle. Write a letter to your society mag (e.g. SIAM Review, etc) and leave out the university name. Send the letter with the name! Etc. If you think this is bad for the field, and your stature is high enough, you might be able to rally some folks to stop it. Otherwise, you've probably been extorted into doing it (as noted below). Even if you do write the letter, you might raise the issue publicly too. – Bill Barth May 13 '15 at 22:16
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    I like the idea of a public letter of dismay. Instead of a field-specific magazine, I might send it to the Chronicle of Higher Ed or a similar general publication: more likely to be seen by the high-level administrators who make such decisions. – Nate Eldredge May 13 '15 at 22:25
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I have heard about this in math, and in fact believe that my department does it too (though only a small number of letters, if I do recall correctly).

Now, here's my (probably unpopular) opinion on letters in general. In applied mathematics, it is not usually very difficult to judge whether a candidate is good or bad just by looking at the basics: publications (where, how many, how often they have been cited), grant funding, impact in general. Realistically, I cannot name a case where letters were really necessary to make the case for or against a candidate. Certainly not within a department, but probably also not with the higher ups -- they, too, will be able to identify the strong and weak candidates just from their CV.

On the other hand, candidates in pure math oftentimes have relatively few publications and fewer external funds. Publications are also often not very well cited. All of this may come with the turf -- or maybe it doesn't and it really speaks to the candidates, I don't know. In any case, in such cases it sure helps to bring letters from Fields Medalists or similar luminaries to the table, in order to push a candidate beyond the finish line. Within the department such letters are hard to argue against. For the higher ups, they may sound reassuring.

The thing I find annoying that in pure math the letters are almost uniformly positive and do, in fact, not really help distinguish between candidates -- I could not name a case where the letters really helped me identify who really is very good and who is just ok (which, I will admit, is often good enough in my view to get tenure). All of these letters praise the impact of the work (which isn't backed up by citation counts), the fact that they have proved some deep conjecture (of which of course there are many), and that the mathematics is beautiful. The candidate is also invariably among the best -- at least among those between 35 and 45 working on cohomologies over fiber bundles of the projective space F_2/Z endowed with a nonstandard topology (i.e., the subfield is so small that there are likely only a handful of people in this age group anyway). These are all things I can't judge as an outsider to the field -- I simply have to believe it, and trust my colleagues who understand the issues better. In the end, however, I find that many of these letters are slightly dishonest in that they never really reveal how good a candidate really is because they are so uniformly outstanding (a sentiment I know many of my more applied colleagues share).

So the purpose of these letters in math, and their number, seems to me to be more as additional ammunition to prop up cases that by themselves (i.e., by just looking at the CV) do not look all that impressive. This propping up will likely help both within the department and upstairs: bring enough letters that all sound very good without really making a distinction, and the candidate's file looks pretty positive.

So there certainly is room for improving the process in our discipline. (And no, I'm not up for having this fight.)

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    While letters might be useful for a tenure decision, subject to all the caveats you mention, there is zero reason why you should need letters for a third-year renewal at a midrange R1 institution. For a third year renewal, the following checklist should suffice: [ ] did the person show up to the majority of his or her classes? [ ] does the person at least pretend to have a research program? [ ] Has the person avoided felony convictions since hiring? [ ] Has the person avoided causing lawsuits against the university? 4 ticks should guarantee renewal; fewer would require a careful look. – Corvus May 14 '15 at 5:34
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    This practice sounds more like testing who is the most well networked inside their hyper-specialized community and good buddy with the big dogs. Or if there is a Fields medalist in your research field. – Greg May 14 '15 at 7:23
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    @Corvus: The main purpose of a third-review is not simply "Should we rehire them?" As you suggest, that question can usually be answered by checking for a pulse. The main purpose or a third-year review is "Are they on a likely path to tenure?" And one of the primary gauges for the quality of an assistant professor's research program is their reputation among external experts. – JeffE May 14 '15 at 10:30
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    @WolfgangBangerth I have seen several hiring, tenure, and promotion cases where external letters have significantly changed people's opinions about the candidate. – JeffE May 15 '15 at 14:23
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    @WolfgangBangerth Both. – JeffE May 16 '15 at 1:33

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