In Defense of 'Idiocy'

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

November 27, 2012

A few weeks ago, The Chronicle published a column decrying the "idiocy" of external recommendation letters solicited by colleges and universities to guide them in tenure and promotion cases. That essay struck me as an unfair indictment of an academic system that I consider to be essential for assessing scholarly work.

The specifics of the external-review process vary by institution, but the general format is the same: The department chair or tenure committee compiles a list of prominent scholars in a candidate's field (usually with suggestions from the candidate) and asks three or more academics on the list to examine the candidate's scholarly works and assess their quality and relative importance. Promotion-and-tenure committees use the letters along with other data to determine whether the candidate should be advanced.

The author of the column, Don M. Chance, a professor of finance at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, pillories what he understands to be the biased and slipshod practices currently in play nationally. He is irritated that we seek letters from experts at more distinguished institutions to judge a candidate's work when members of the candidate's department are perfectly capable of judging the research of a colleague in their own discipline. He believes that external letters are really only of use to campuswide tenure committees whose members are unlikely to be in the same discipline as the candidate seeking promotion.

While it is true that external letters are helpful to committee members from other disciplines, I would argue that they are especially important on the departmental level. Because academic disciplines have become hyper-specialized, we can no longer assume that someone from one subdiscipline can provide a fair assessment of research from another.

Take biology, for example, which has become a sprawling discipline composed of many subfields. Most neuroscientists I know who are working to understand brain functions would prefer that the ecologist next door not have the final word on the quality of their research—and vice versa. Nor do microbiologists studying the molecular genetics of extremophiles want the plant biologist across the hall to assess their work.

My own discipline, English, is even more diverse and composed of many subfields completely disconnected from one another. Whereas 30 years ago professors could claim to specialize in an entire century—19th-century British literature, say, or 20th-century American literature—now a scholar is much more likely to focus narrowly. One might be a Victorianist—or, even more likely, a specialist in a single author, such as Charles Dickens. And then there are the many new subdisciplines within English studies: literary theory, rhetoric and composition, digital composition, queer theory, cultural studies, and the list goes on.

So Professor Chance has it wrong. Intellectual work has become so specialized that departmental colleagues are no longer the best people to assess one another's work. That is precisely why external letters serve such an important role in the tenure-and-promotion process. When the process is managed properly, specialists in a candidate's subfield are selected to provide a fair and knowledgeable assessment of how well a scholar's research has (or has not) contributed to the field.

What's more, external review plays another, often invisible, function: It helps neutralize bad internal politics.

It is precisely on the department level that a candidate is most likely to run into trouble with unfair treatment. A jealous colleague, a rival, or someone the candidate has offended who sits on a tenure committee may attempt to block the promotion, either intentionally or subconsciously. External reviews provide a perspective independent of the candidate's department. As a dean and then a provost, I always gave special weight to external letters, particularly when there was a split decision within a department about a candidate's readiness to advance, and especially when the reviewers had national reputations.

Mr. Chance misunderstands another key factor of the external-review process: He seems to believe that the process is supposed to be scientific. The list of potential external reviewers for a candidate's case is never a random sampling of experts, he argues, and therefore is likely to admit bias into the process. Unlike a scientist working from a random sample of data in order to minimize the margin of error, argues Mr. Chance, the typical external review process relies on too small a sample and therefore maximizes the margin of "error."

His remedy? Compile a list of 100 scholars and select reviewers (as many as 10 of them) blindly from that extensive list. Once again, he misses the point. The tenure-and-promotion process is not some search for unassailable truth that can be arrived at independent of professional—that is, subjective—judgment. It is precisely a judgment as to whether a candidate meets the standards of the particular department and institution given what is revealed in the external letters and all of the other documents provided by the candidate.

Far from being random, the list of potential reviewers should be focused. A committee does not need just anyone on the list; it needs those scholars most familiar with the kind of work being assessed. A random list is not useful; a focused one is.

Most troubling to me as the former editor of a scholarly journal is Professor Chance's example of how "egregious" cases of bias can occur. He hypothesizes that a candidate has published an article in the most prestigious journal in the discipline and that the editor of the journal is asked to write a letter on behalf of the candidate's promotion. He suggests that the editor would abandon all professional integrity by focusing narrowly on the one article and praising it excessively because, after all, the editor was the one who accepted the article in the first place.

But in the academic world that I have inhabited for over 30 years, journal editors—and, indeed, most external reviewers—approach the letter-writing process with a sense of professionalism and academic integrity. To suggest that an editor will extravagantly praise an article because doing so reflects positively on the editor's journal is the nadir of cynicism.

In fairness to Professor Chance, abuses do happen. A poorly regulated process might allow a candidate's former dissertation adviser on the list of reviewers, or a co-author, or close friend. But a properly regulated process will expressly prohibit all such conflicts of interest.

Peer review is the cornerstone of our entire system of scholarship, from the anonymous manuscript reviews at journals and presses, to the tenure-and-promotion process, to panels judging grant proposals. Rather than pillorying it by calling it absurd, imprecise, and an instance of "idiocy," we should do everything we can to maintain and strengthen it. Not to do so is to leave too much to chance.

Gary A. Olson is the incoming president of Daemen College, in Amherst, N.Y. His most recent book is "A Creature of Our Own Making: Reflections on Contemporary Academic Life" (SUNY Press). He can be contacted at