A senior philosopher writes:
You recently ran a post on Leiter Reports about tenure reviews, asking just how many one should take on in a given year. But there was an issue which came up in that post which is particularly important, and I hope you'll run a separate post addressing that issue.
One writer offered the following opinion: "I do think it's really important to not agree to do it unless you think there's a non-trivial chance you will be able to recommend the candidate." Another suggested that this principle is too weak: one shouldn't take this on unless one thinks it probable that one will write a positive evaluation. I have certainly met others who subscribe to a still stronger principle.
I really think this is appalling. While this sort of principle seems appropriate for letters of recommendation, where one is being asked by an individual to write a letter of support for that very person, external evaluations for tenure and promotion are a different thing altogether. One is being asked by a department (or a university) to offer an opinion on the quality of a person's work. Surely it is legitimate for institutions to try to determine the value of a faculty member's scholarly work. And I take it that we can all agree that not everyone's work is of equal value; some individuals who come up for tenure or promotion have not done work which merits advancement. It is one of the responsibilities we have as faculty members to provide honest reviews of candidates so that philosophy departments and universities can make responsible decisions about tenure and promotion. Those who refuse to write negative reviews, or who refuse to take on reviews where they think there is some risk of writing a less than enthusiastic review, make it difficult for departments and universities to make responsible decisions.
I have written letters of evaluation which have not been positive. At times, this keeps me up at night. The thought that I have played some role in a negative tenure decision, with all the pain that inevitably causes, weighs very heavily on me. I understand the desire to spare oneself this sort of thing. But this is no excuse for undermining a legitimate system of evaluation, and this is exactly what one does when one refuses to evaluate candidates one cannot support.
I have not posted these remarks in response to the earlier comments both because I believe this issue deserves a post of its own, but also because I wish to remain anonymous. I do not usually ask for anonymity on controversial issues, but in this case I am concerned that making my views on this matter public, given the other views on this issue, will only make it likely that I receive many more requests for external evaluations in cases where a negative opinion is called for. I do not want to become a magnet for controversial cases, or worse, for cases which are uncontroversially weak.
This seems to me exactly right. I would add that the willingness of members of the profession to write an unfavorable tenure letter is essential to defending the institution of tenure.
I'll permit anonymous comments on this thread, since those who agree with my correspondent will no doubt share the concerns in the final paragraph; I will ask, however, that commenters include a valid e-mail address, but that will not appear. (By agreeing in public with my correspondent, I do not think I run much additional risk, since as readers know, I am not hesitant about expressing critical opinions, even in public.)