Saturday, November 17, 2012

Outside Evaluation Letters for Tenure and Promotion

Almost all law schools solicit outside reviewers to evaluate the scholarly work of faculty members up for promotion or tenure or sometimes even for retention. A recent article in the Chronicle of Education questions the value of these letters. It notes that almost all the letters are positive, even effusive. I particularly liked this paragraph:

And they write so well and so cogently. Today I have read the expressions "highly commendable," "groundbreaking," "impeccably rigorous," "carefully designed," and "recognized nationally"—all phrases I wish I could think of when I am the writer. Instead, I come up with "doing good work," "interesting," and "innovative." At least I didn't say "cool."

I usually write a couple of these letters each year and am guilty of using these terms. I want to be honest. Yet, I am hesitant to be overly critical and possible help destroy someone’s career.

Not all letters are effusive. Over the year I have seen younger colleagues having to dispute letters written by cranky or even ignorant outside reviewers. Sometimes “inside” reviewers also can be unfair.

My solution: Hire only people whom you think will succeed and mentor then so that they do succeed. As a result, you will encounter fewer difficult decisions down the road. Your knowledge of your candidate will determine how you evaluate the reviews.


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