Beyond Lemonade

It is probably true that “nobody likes writing tenure letters,” as the headline asserts in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article on the practice of asking external reviewers to evaluate the work of tenure applicants (October 23rd online). 

Of course, writing a favorable letter for a highly qualified candidate is fairly easy.  But what if the individual’s record has been abysmal?  Do you give a negative review, one that could put a final nail in the coffin of the candidate’s application and relegate him or her to a future haunted by PTSD, substance abuse, and the inability to put food on the table for one’s innocent offspring?

If you are a reviewer who is averse to consigning your underwhelming colleagues to such a fate, do not despair.  It is possible to apply a positive spin to the most dismal of raw data.  Consider the following letter, which helped secure tenure at the College of William & Mary several years ago for an assistant professor.  The names of the candidate and the reviewer have been redacted to protect their privacy. 

Dear Tenure and Promotion Committee:

At first glance, the performance of Professor __________ over the past six years appears deficient, perhaps even laughably bad.  However, a closer, more contextually sensitive look at his record reveals a different story. 

Scholarship:  It is true that Professor __________’s only publication during those six years was a Letter to the Editor of the local newspaper, in which he urged city officials in Williamsburg to put up a stop sign at the corner of Jefferson Davis Highway and Route 417.  But take note: following the installation of the requested sign, accidental pedestrian deaths at that intersection decreased by 56%, more than offsetting the 34% increase in intentional gun homicides at that location during the same period.  (The latter outcome reflects the relative ease of shooting someone from a vehicle that is not moving.)  How many other tenured faculty members at your institution can claim to have saved so many lives?  Don’t these numbers reflect the true “impact factor” of Professor __________’s work?

Teaching:  Yes, Professor __________’s student evaluations suggest that he is one of William & Mary’s most inept instructors.  And it is also the case that his syllabi are largely incoherent, filled with incorrect dates (October 34th?  Durando 12th?) and puzzling assignments for courses that are supposedly in English Literature (“Your DNA saliva samples are due on November 4th”).  He often delivers entire lectures in pig Latin, and routinely covers classroom windows with a black tarp in order to prevent “Croatian sterilization rays” from infecting students’ genitalia.  Not a pretty picture. 

But consider this: there is much to be learned from a bad example.  Students who take Professor __________’s courses develop a heightened appreciation for the good teaching that other professors at William & Mary demonstrate.  Result: the overall status and prestige of your school is enhanced.  

Service to the Institution:  Professor __________ has only served on one committee at William & Mary: the Therapy Dog Review Council.  This body evaluates the performance of all therapy canines that are deployed in the campus library during the stress-filled two weeks at the end of every semester.  Records indicate that he only attends meetings that take place during the lunch hour, and only when a meal is provided.  On several occasions he has been censured by the Council for calling a dog a “bitch.”  

Nevertheless, his contributions to the Council’s work have been impressive.  For example, incidents in which therapy dogs bite students have declined by 26% since Professor __________ recommended tranquilizing them (the dogs, not the students) prior to petting sessions.  

Conclusion: In my view, Professor __________’s accomplishments at William & Mary clearly call for the awarding of tenure.  Just do it.   


_____________________________, Ph.D.

Distinguished Professor of British Literature, University of __________

Sometimes, lemons can produce champagne, not just lemonade.  Embrace the challenge.  Start writing.