Paying for Tenure Letters?

Most schools don’t pay honorariums to outside scholars to write tenure letters (that vital component of a professor’s application for promotion and tenure), whether on internal promotions or about lateral recruits. At least that’s been my experience, based on writing about 25 of them since my own first tenure 15 years ago and requesting them on behalf of a couple of schools.

Instead, this task seems to be a service duty each tenured academic has to the broad academy as a whole. True, writers invariably receive a warm “thank you” note from the Dean at the requesting school and appreciation from the home Dean and Provost as part of their annual review of faculty contributions. There’s also the intrinsic reward of engaging deeply with a single scholar’s body of work and writing a report for an audience not necessarily expert in the particular field.

On the other hand, writing a thoughtful and fair tenure letter requires many hours of work, at least five and often ten or sometimes more. As a result, at least one school pays $250 for the service.

Should other schools pay money too or should that school stop spending money it need not spend? My vote is to save the money. If offered the honorarium, I favor asking the school to reallocate it to PILF (the Public Interest Law Foundation) to fund stipends for law students working in the public interest.

What do you think?

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4 Responses

  1. Randy Picker says:

    Schools need to come closer to internalizing the cost of the letters. If the letters are free to them, they act accordingly and ask for too many letters. On that score, who they pay–you or PILF–doesn’t matter so long as they write a decent check to somebody. Schools should pay and individual letter writers should decide whether to collect or donate.

  2. Kevin Outterson says:

    More than a few schools pay for external review letters.

  3. Dan Markel says:

    FSU does pay, I believe 500$, and I think it’s money well-spent so long as we ask the outside letter writer to read the whole corpus of the tenure file. I think asking others to just read and comment on two papers is kind of rinky-dink and doesn’t give a sense of the whole body of work. I suppose if you’re only asked to read 2 pieces, it can be done w/o honorarium, but I think Randy’s right about the need to internalize the costs to some extent.
    That said, I was incredibly impressed by the offer of one letter writer who declined the $ and said, just give it to scholarships or something else valuable at the law school. Big altruism points, and doubly so because he probably didn’t even get the tax deduction on top of it 🙂
    If ever put to that test, I hope to have the decency to follow that model of menschlichkeit!

  4. Orin Kerr says:

    I think the best argument for paying authors of such letters is that it probably increases the chances that the letters will be honest. My sense is that because most schools don’t pay, a lot of authors of tenure letters see their letters as mostly a favor to the tenure candidate. As a result, those who can’t write positive letters are less likely to write at all. My sense is that this dynamic tends to generate more artificially positive letters than otherwise. I’m not sure, but perhaps a norm of paying for the letter might instead create more of a sense of obligation to the faculty that is reviewing the letter (and paying for it) rather than to the candidate.