Puzzling over External Evaluations

I have a question about who should be asked to write external evaluations when an untenured assistant professor is coming up for tenure and promotion. We have a system–which I think is fairly standard–in which applicants for tenure and promotion provide a list of names of people who would be good evaluators, then the chair and the personnel committee come up with a set of external letter-writers not suggested by the candidate, balanced evenly between people on the applicant’s list and people not on that list (but of course in the applicant’s field).
My question’s not about that system; it’s about one variant within it. Some in my department think that it is common for applicants to include their dissertation advisors on their list of names, and that the personnel committee should solicit letters from those advisors because they can provide valuable insight. Others believe that this is not common at all, and that having a letter from a dissertation advisor risks weakening the applicant’s dossier because that person will be perceived as an advocate rather than an evaluator.
Trying to present the two sides of the discussion without biasing the question on one side or the other. Is there a way for me to find out what’s common; what’s considered best practice; and what the reasons are?—Professor Puzzled

Dear Puzzled,

This is a good question for your Dean, who will have a better sense of the etiquette of external letters for tenure and promotion where you are. It’s true that some institutions have very strict “arm’s-length” rules about external letter writers: not only are dissertation advisors excluded, but also anyone who has taught the candidate or sometimes even went to graduate school with them. This gets tough in a small field, where most people have some kind of professional contact with each other. On the other hand, a few places don’t exclude dissertation sponsors, for the reasons you state.

The general rule at most institutions, though, is that dissertation advisors (or at least primary sponsors) are not appropriate reviewers because of their close relationship to the candidate. Some allow other members of the dissertation committee, assuming that the personal investment in the candidate is less intense. The same is true of co-authors and co-editors: that’s too close a connection, whereas having a piece in a collection edited by the letter writer is adequate distance. All departments that I know of ask the writer to disclose any relationship with the candidate. To me, the exclusion of a primary advisor makes sense. A dissertation sponsor doesn’t have enough distance either from the project or from the candidate, for better or for worse, to write a believable letter (and including a primary advisor can backfire if the relationship between the two was strained or even antagonistic).

More to the point, if the letter writer is supposed to evaluate how the candidate’s teaching and scholarship measure up, either within that department or more generally within the profession, I don’t think a dissertation advisor has more insight. Indeed, someone who doesn’t know the candidate can have a clearer sense of how the work fits into existing research, evaluate the level of service, and interpret teaching evaluations and peer observation reports.

Finally, what do your colleagues in other departments do? You need your candidate to pass not just your department’s sniff test, but also that of whatever the next level in the tenure and promotion process is. In cases like this, the appearance of impropriety can damage a candidate’s case — something you want to avoid. So, no dissertation advisors as letter writers.

The Chair

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