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I seem to have reached the phase of my career where I receive regular requests to externally evaluate faculty: this means that I am evaluating the research program of tenure-track faculty (so far always at US institutions, so let's concentrate on this case) and writing a letter to be used in some ways for the pre-tenure / tenure / promotion processes. If it makes any difference, I would be more interested in answers that apply to the field of mathematics.

Well, sometimes I have reasons that I might not want to do this. Here is a list of reasons that either have occurred to me or seem plausible that they might occur with others:

  1. I feel that I am too busy: either too busy to do a good job in the time allotted, or just so busy that it would make my life easier to decline.

  2. I don't have much insight into the candidate's work, and I feel that many other people could do a better job.

  3. In order to do a good job I would have to investigate certain things, e.g. whether and why a certain paper has not yet been published. It's hard to investigate things in academia completely anonymously, and whether this type of investigation would be well-received or even appropriate is not completely clear.

  4. I feel that the candidate's work is not very strong. (Note: not very strong compared to what is a key question here, but a sticky one. I have found that institutions which are more teaching focused often ask their candidates to be evaluated by standards which sound very rigorous and exacting to me, a faculty member at a major research university.)

Especially in the last case, it's not so clear "what's in it for me" to write an evaluation that says that a candidate's work is not as good as that of many other people I know in the field. They are still working in my field, so I would rather have them there than not. I have no idea what the chance is that my letter would be taken seriously in a failure to hire/promote them. Either way, there are reasons for concern on my end.

My main question is: if I decline to write such an evaluation, is the act of declining likely to have implications for the candidate? (E.g. is it likely that the declination would appear on the candidate's dossier?) The subsidiary question is: if I have reasons like the above that would make me prefer not to write an evaluation, is it nevertheless important to write one? Is it "the right thing to do"? (Of course one wants to do a certain amount of service to the academic community. On the other hand, many/most academics get offered so many service obligations that they have to turn some down. This question should be understood as relative to doing other service tasks, not doing less overall.)

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Chairs / deans / provosts will tell you that declining will have no effect. This is the official and morally as well as legally correct answer.

However, I've had the great pleasure (not) of serving on a committee (at a private, elite R1) where the promotion review chair did not like the candidate and raised the issue that there were a certain percentage of declines to strengthen their tenuous case against the scholar ("no one likes/respects this scholar thus they are declining to serve as reviewers).

This was counter to policy and in my mind immoral and possibly illegal depending on the circumstances.

If you do decline, please include a phrase that you are declining due to personal / workload reasons and that the committee must absolutely not use your declination to in anyway prejudice the candidate's case.


Now as to your subsidiary question as to whether you should feel obliged to write, this is more of a moral question. As a tenured full professor, I do feel an obligation to my discipline to do these reviews.

However, I will only do a review if I can do it well. If a candidate's work is out of my field of expertise or if my workload prevents me from doing a good job, I won't write. My first obligation is, after all, to my research agenda and my students.

Furthermore, there have been cases where I know too much about a candidate to write an objective review. In those cases, I ask to be relieved due to a conflict of interest.

There are varying opinions on whether one should write negative letters and this should really be a separate question. My own philosophy is that my letter is a third-person's neutral observation of the strength of the candidate's application for tenure. I thus write about the strengths that I see for this case, but whether the strengths are sufficient for tenure is ultimately a decision that should be made by the tenuring committees.

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    Or, instead of "personal reasons," something very specific like, "My current workload does not allow time for an evaluation that will do this candidate justice, so I must decline." – Bob Brown Aug 30 '16 at 1:31
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    Sounds good. I wonder whether you have any opinion as to whether I am in some way obligated to provide an honest, not-too-positive appraisal rather than declining because I don't wish to have a negative effect on someone else's career. – Pete L. Clark Aug 30 '16 at 2:19
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    @PeteL.Clark - this is a separate and very good question. People have different philosophical approaches. Mine is that my letter must make the strongest case possible for the candidate without perjuring myself. This may lead to my strategically not answering a question or answering it with a non-answer. – RoboKaren Aug 30 '16 at 2:27
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    @ChrisWhite on the moral case: One candidate has made a point of getting to know everyone in the field; over few a postdoc positions scattered around the country they've bought drinks for the whole field. The other has recently returned from a few years in another country, and rapidly gained the respect of the few people they interact with regularly, – Chris H Aug 30 '16 at 9:45
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    Legal: 1) the use of criteria not described in the faculty handbook to evaluate candidates, especially when such criteria appear to be used capriciously only for some candidates; 2) when data shows that members of some protected classes do not share the same access to social networks as the majority class, and when the decline rate is used to argue such in a negative fashion. – RoboKaren Aug 30 '16 at 15:03
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As a preface to this answer, I've only been involved in the promotion process at relatively elite private R1's. Things might be different at more teaching oriented schools.

With that said, I disagree with RoboKaren's answer. At the places where I've been involved, the promotion dossier includes a list of all people who were asked to to write letters. For those that declined, the reason for their declination is also listed. University administrators have been very explicit that a low acceptance rate is bad for the case. That's not to say that any single declination is going to have much of an effect, but a large number will. Though I've never sat on a university wide promotion committee and thus have only seen mathematics dossiers, I've been told that the acceptance rate in math is higher than in other subjects, so this mostly hurts non-mathematicians.

As far as your scruples about writing a letter, please do not write a negative one unless you have a very strong opinion that the candidate should not be promoted. A single negative letter can torpedo a case. It is better to decline.

For the letters I've written for people at teaching institutions that have limited time for research, my strategy is to make comparisons to people I know at similar kinds of institutions (perhaps at places that are slightly better and thus are aspirational peers rather than actual ones). There is no reason to compare them to people at R1's. Sometimes the university will try to box you in on that (eg they will ask you point-blank "Would you support tenuring them at your institution?"). I always just side-step such requests (eg with a statement that if I were at their institution, I would enthusiastically vote to promote them).

A final comment. You say that one problem for you is that you might have to investigate things like whether or not a paper has been published. I see no reason to do that. I just take the cv/publication list/research statement at face value unless I have a really good reason to not do so. You shouldn't make writing these letters in a big ordeal for you. I usually give myself a single afternoon (say 4-5 hours at most) to write the letter and try to keep it at that.

  • While I'm surprised your institution shows the declined list and uses it as a judgement criteria (I think it's bad/illegal practice for the reasons listed ), I don't think we disagree on any substantive areas. – RoboKaren Aug 31 '16 at 18:46
  • I am, however, surprised at how little time you put into the tenure review letters. I spend at least a week on a review. In my field, I have to read one or two book manuscripts and at least a dozen articles. The letter writing itself usually takes two days -- one to write and one to edit. I'm doing other work at the same time, but still it's a good 20+ hours work. But this may either be an R1 difference or a disciplinary difference. – RoboKaren Aug 31 '16 at 18:50
  • @RoboKaren: I haven't looked at it in a while, but if I recall correctly the section on promotions in the faculty handbook does say that declinations are taken into account. I'm not taking a position (in this answer!) as to whether or not it is a good or moral policy. – Andy Putman Aug 31 '16 at 18:51
  • Yikes, I hope the letter writers are told this. – RoboKaren Aug 31 '16 at 18:52
  • @RoboKaren: I think this is a disciplinary issue. I'm a field that does not have books (only papers). I also am not famous enough to be asked to write letters for people that are really far from my research area, so I generally already know the people and their work (at least in general terms). I also am very efficient with writing -- it only takes me a couple of hours of actual writing/revising time to write 3-4 pages, which is the typical length of my letters. – Andy Putman Aug 31 '16 at 18:57

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