Monday, October 17, 2016

Academic Promotion Letter Writing Season

This morning I sent off my 6th (and final) letter of the season evaluating a promotion case. In my dreams I had been ruminating about it throughout the night and, when I woke up, the language just flowed. It was a promotion to Full Professor case. A Full Professor is the highest rank in academia, outside of a Distinguished Professor or Chaired Professor rank, which are tops (I hold a Chaired Professorship and am very honored by this recognition).

I already received an acknowledgment that my letter was received  so I have a sense of accomplishment and I hope that the case goes positive up the academic hierarchy.

For my readers who are not in academia, typically, in the mid to late Summer and early Fall letter writers are solicited by Department Chairs or, sometimes, Deans, from academics outside of the candidate's home college or university. When its is a matter of promotion from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor with tenure (which means, essentially, job security for life), there may be as many as a dozen letters required to evaluate the candidate's accomplishments in research, teaching, and service, with the exact number depending on the college or university and, sometimes, even the candidate's department. Usually a candidate provides a list of names and the academic leadership identifies others; not all names on the list may be invited. Normally, the candidate is not informed who has been invited to evaluate his/her case.

Most universities have explicit rules (arms length rules), that state that the letter writer should not be a collaborator, have the same dissertation advisor as the candidate, or have some other close professional association.  

For promotion from Associate Professor to Full Professor, I know that, in my very own case, 13 letters were received. Sometimes more invitations are sent out since some invitations to write are declined. It is an important task, time-consuming, and comes without any compensation. Although, I must admit, that, last year, for a "habilitation" case in France, for which the candidate had requested a letter from me and I had accepted to write one, I received a cake in the mail, which was delicious (and he did get his habilitation, which is actually like a higher elevation than a PhD and is valued in several countries). I also wrote a letter for him last month for his Full Professorship and his promotion was already approved.

The request for a letter of evaluation, once accepted, usually comes with a file of the candidate's cv (a resume in academia), the candidate's personal statement, and copies of several publications.

As a Chaired Full Professor,  I get my share of requests to do promotion evaluations and have done them for faculty candidates in Business Schools, Engineering Schools but also in Math or Math Science Departments. Although my primary appointment is in a business school, I hold courtesy appointments in two engineering departments at UMass Amherst and my PhD is in Applied Math, with a concentration in Operations Research.

What I find rather surprising lately, is that, in several cases, I was asked to provide a letter of evaluation in less than a month. In previous years, usually a 2 month time window would be standard.

The past few weeks, I have evaluated 4 Full Professor cases, 1 promotion and tenure case, and 1 promotion to Distinguished Professor case in England.

Once the evaluation letters are received, depending on the university, there are usually multiple levels of voting that take place by Personnel Committees at the department, school (such as business or engineering school, depending where the faculty member's home base is), by the Dean, and the university level, by the Provost, and upwards to the President and/or Board of Trustees. Faculty who are up for promotion and tenure are necessarily anxious because there have been cases where the case went positive through the Dean's level, only to be overturned at the Provost's level. Faculty may then appeal but not often are appeals successful. Essentially, if denied tenure, one may get a year's reprieve but then must find another job. In the case of a denial of a promotion to Full Professor, once can try again (and again, if need be). To achieve a Full Professorship within 10 years of receiving one's PhD is considered excellent.

It is very interesting to see that certain universities in requesting a letter of evaluation will spell out in detail what a candidate should be evaluated on; some even note citations on Google Scholar as being important and major awards and recognitions received, whereas other don't provide much guidance.

A few years ago I received a telephone call from a Department Chairman saying that a letter writer was hospitalized and could I take over, which, I did, since I knew the candidate and could write a solid letter.

I presently serve on the Personnel Committee of the Isenberg School of Management, and have also served on this committee in the past and it is interesting to see letters evaluating candidates in different areas of business and management, from my own area of Operations Management and Management Science, to Finance, Accounting, and Marketing, and even Organizational Behavior and Strategy, and Hospitality and Tourism Management as well as Sports Management. Of course, the representative from the candidate's department is the one that has to argue the case before us because of familiarity with the area.

And when you hear that a strong positive letter that you wrote had the desired outcome, congratulations are in order!

Luckily, I have done all of my external case evaluations for tis promotions season but, the "letter writing" does not end for a faculty member, since we also write letters of recommendation for our students who are seeking excellent jobs - our undergraduates and MBAs in industry and our PhD students, primarily, in academia. And then there are those letters of nomination for colleagues and students for various awards and recognitions!  I am glad that I had such fabulous English teachers both in elementary school and in high school and, I must admit, I do love to write!