I am up for tenure at a US university. It is a regional comprehensive 4-year primarily undergraduate university; it's mostly teaching school but has 10-15% graduate students.

I am allowed a maximum of 5 letters of support. I have two from department colleagues (both long-term tenured and one is a sub-dean) and three external. My chair has asked to remove the two department ones as this is basically just ‘not done’ (against the spirit of the guidelines, the guidelines make no mention of who can or cannot write letters). It is not written in either the department tenure guidelines or the university tenure guidelines that you cannot use department faculty for references.

Is it common not be able to use tenured department colleagues to write letters of support for tenure?

Update: thanks all. Got the tenure thing.

  • 27
    Whether or not this is addressed in the policy, if it is just "not done", then you won't benefit from having pushed the rules, and those letters won't help your case. Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 20:28
  • 1
    You could fight the rules, but then the department will think that you stir up troubles. That can't be a good image to have going into your tenure review. It kind of sucks to say it but I'd just do as you're told, especially if you think that you deserve to be tenured (in which case, those two letters shouldn't make a difference since the writers will comment on your case in the tenure review anyway).
    – BMD
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 8:00
  • A partially rhetorical question--If this is "not done", why did the two colleagues, who should know better, agree to write letters?
    – mkennedy
    Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 19:28
  • @mkennedy they had 25 years experience between them as well. They both said they just never knew but now of course we all realize not to do this. Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 22:42
  • Congratulations!
    – Bitwise
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 19:12

3 Answers 3


Yes, totally common. The reason is that these people have an inherent conflict of interest: they would be judge (letter writer) and jury (get to vote on your case) at the same time.

You will want to choose people as letter writers that (i) know you professionally, (ii) are well respected in the field, (iii) have no stake in all of this because they are at unrelated universities.

  • 16
    Well, it's not really that sort of conflict of interest, I think. Rather, it's that one's own colleagues already have as much input as they choose in the relevant faculty meetings and so on. So such letters are just a loss, at best. Further, as in @PeteL.Clark's answer, having such letters tends to suggest both that one is clueless about the process, and that one's work is not well known outside one's own department. There is also the significantly irrational feature about prophets-in-their-own-land, but you are in no position to debate that issue. Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 22:32
  • In some colleges, letters are expected to be evaluations of candidate, primarily of scholarship. The candidate will submit 7-10 names and the chair will contact the letter writers (and may use others) to try to get the minimum of 4 responses. The letter content and name of those who respond is not shared (except in anonymous way) to candidate. In that model, letters from collaborators/coauthors/shared school or advising experiences carry little weight. The bylaws do not say avoid collaborators, but if they try to emphasis the idea of experts 'evaluation' it is likely implied.
    – Carol
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 0:17
  • 1
    If you're going to make a legal analogy, I'd say that witness and jury would be more appropriate. The judge would be the department chair or chair of the hiring committee. Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 20:01
  • @DavidRicherby -- yes, great analogy: "Witness and jury". Commented Dec 25, 2016 at 11:58

Your department chair is 100% correct in asking you to remove letters from faculty internal to your university. She is doing you a favor by mentioning this to you!

To be honest, that you think this might be appropriate makes me worry that you may have insufficient familiarity with how the tenure and promotion process works at American universities. The whole purpose of these letters is to get a sense of your academic profile in the academic community at large (i.e., outside of your institution). A good such letter is written by someone with a lot of status in the community and a good perspective...which includes a lack of involvement in local affairs and politics. On the one hand, it is a waste to get a letter from faculty in your department, because faculty in your department already play a much larger role in the tenure and promotion process: they evaluate your entire dossier and vote up or down. On the other hand, if you are asked for five letters of evaluation and you choose two of them from your own department, it will likely create a very strong negative impression: it looks like no one outside of your department has ever heard of you and your work.

I don't mean to be harsh or alarming, but: you need to get a clue pretty fast. Calling attention to the fact that internal letters are not explicitly against the rules of tenure and promotion is absolutely the worst perspective you can have on the situation: in this regard just as is usually the case in life, not everything that is a prohibitively bad idea is explicitly prohibited. I strongly recommend that you approach a trusted mentor (for this inside your department is probably better, although you should take whatever you can get) and say something like "I realize that I have relatively little knowledge of how the promotion and tenure process actually works beyond the formal rules, which I now have reason to believe do not tell the whole story. Can you help me out?"

Good luck.

  • 7
    I saw that you had people from your institution as letter writers, and that immediately struck me as a huge red flag. I'm actually rather surprised that they were willing to write letters at all, since they ought to understand the tenure system better.
    – Buzz
    Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 23:10
  • "I'm actually rather surprised that they were willing to write letters at all" - unless they actually want your application to be rejected, of course ;)
    – alephzero
    Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 23:48
  • 18
    I agree that the fact that the OP's colleagues have written letters for him is curious, and there is a chance that at his particular institution the culture is such that this is not discouraged. But given that (i) at the vast majority of US institutions this would be a very strange thing to do and (ii) the chair has brought up the point, I certainly wouldn't want to take that chance if I were the OP. Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 23:50
  • I would agree. The name of the tenure game is not as much to have effusive praise, but to not have anything that can be used against you. So three external letters by themselves is better than 3+2 internal, where the presence of the internals becomes a "red flag" for someone who doesn't want you there.
    – RoboKaren
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 18:15

There are several reasons why even a teaching institution might not want letters from inside your department.

  1. It would be redundant, as the department is likely expected to collectively submit a letter.
  2. There may be various conflicts of interest that are more likely for departmental colleagues (such as a reluctance to go through a search if tenure is denied and the friendships that naturally develop through working relationships).
  3. These letters are partially to give the committee an idea of the candidate's interdepartmental interactions, which are often highly valued at liberal arts schools.

Note that at teaching institutions, as opposed to research institutions, it's not actually uncommon to have colleagues from the candidate's own school write letters or otherwise provide input. Faculty at other institutions may be better/more objective at judging research, but they are much less likely to be in a position to discuss the candidate's teaching and collegiality.

At my own institution, we are required to submit letters from faculty at the institution during some stages of the tenure review. However, there is still a preference that these letters not all come from within the department.

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