Should Tenure Reviews Be Anonymous?

I had always assumed that scholarship reviews for tenure promotions were anonymous. This is certainly the case at many (most?) schools, but I've learned it is not the universal practice. At my school, external reviews are anonymous and heavily redacted. Internally generated scholarship reviews can be anonymous as well. While I would love to know the identities of my reviewers -- especially those whom I've never met and yet had very positive things to say about my work -- I have no particular quarrel with the system. At other schools, however, external reviews of a tenure candidate's scholarship are not redacted. At still others, I've gathered that the reviews are officially anonymous, but that tenure candidates regularly learn their reviewers' identity.

The case for anonymity is straightforward: Giving reviewers a promise of anonymity encourages greater candor. Insofar as a tenure candidate's scholarship is deficient, this is more likely to be uncovered through anonymous reviews, as reviewers will feel more comfortable criticizing a fellow academic's work if they can do so from behind the veil of anonymity. Among other things, anonymity may make it easier to criticize a peer whom one knows personally. It may also lesson the risk of reprisal (though this concern is less serious in the legal academy where most journals are faculty edited and relatively few scholars recieve peer-reviewed grants).

Not all academics think anonymity is the best approach, however. Among other things, anonymity may enable some academics to settle personal scores and attack those with whom they disagree. (Yes, this would be wrong for any academic to do, but that does not mean it does not happen.) Others believe that academics should be able to offer honest critiques of others' academic work without concealing their identity.

When I was up for promotion to associate professor (without tenure), one reviewer mailed me a copy of his letter with a note. We had never met, and he was critical of one of my articles (though he still recommneded my promotion. In his note he said he did not believe in anonymous review. In his opinion, anything critical of my scholarship that he would be willing to say to my senior colleagues, he should be willing to say to me. As a tenured professor, he explained, he had little to fear from a junior academic, though he could threaten my career prospects with a negative review. He also suggested that I had a right to know who was criticizing my work. In a sense, he suggested it was cowardly for an external reviewer to hide his or her identity when criticizing someone else. [Insert ironic reference to my own current anonymity here.]

Was my external reviewer correct? Should external reviews be anonymous? I would be interested to learn what VC readers think, and to know more about what is done at other schools and in other disciplines.

None of my reviews were anonymous. I don't know what the usual practices are, though.
11.13.2005 8:26pm
Buck Turgidson (mail):
As far as I recall, college and grad school application recommendations used to be shielded. An applicant whether he was accepted or rejected could ask to review his file but could not see the recommendation letters--there would be little point in making them anonymous since the applicant is the one who asked them for a recommendation and would know right away who penned each piece. At the same time, anonymity on the other end did not make any sense since the status of the recommender was usually taken into account when weighing the recommendation.

This seems to have changed some time in the late 1980s or I simply missed the relevant details earlier. Almost every application I have seen since then has a check box for a waiver of the right to see the recommendations. I used to routinely check them off or randomly do check/no-check without any actual interest in reviewing the recommendations. The interesting case came when one of my recommenders asked me to check the waiver box, but then proceeded giving me a copy of the recommendation. This seems to be the logical way to handle things. I am not sure how much I care about the waiver--I'm sure that there are some people out there with a healthy sense of paranoia who would never check the waiver box. I suspect most people don't care. But it should be standard practice among those asked for a recommendation to offer a copy to the applicant--if they are not going to say anything positive, they should either refuse to write the application or be candid with the applicant to begin with. Another of my recommenders warned me that he would have to write all of his views on my candidacy--positive and negative. In his case, I consented because I knew the guy to be honest to a fault. I'm not so sure I would have made the same decision with others.

Tenure review is somewhat different in that the reviewers are not only people from the candidate's list. Some universities (and selected departments, since the policy is not always university-wide) ask the candidate to submit the list of outside colleagues who would best be in a position to evaluate his work. Some reviewers are picked from that list, but the department selects other reviewers as well. It seems that the latter should be anonymous for reasons you offer. I'm not confident that the same should apply to pre-screened reviewers since the relationship is somewhat different. Furthermore, the candidate should be in a position to ask first if it is reasonable to include a colleague on the list.

On the other hand, there should be no reason for the candidate to care about anonymity. If he has access to the reviews and disputes anything in them, the department should be able to handle that issue without pitting the two against each other. This process effectively amounts to arbitration with both the review and the rebuttal being submitted to a third party in a position to understand the arguments and make an informed decision.

On a slightly different note, I have heard of a couple of my professors having trouble getting tenure largely because their field of study was so innovative either in scope or in method that there were not enough people outside the department available for review. In one case the tenure was eventually granted, in another rejected. The one who got a rejection eventually succeeded in solving a previously unsolved problem work on which was cited as one of the reasons for refusing to grant tenure. But, aside from this vindication, this also demonstrates unfairness of the process to people who choose to work in a relatively narrow or new discipline. A single negative remark can sink the candidacy. This leads to an odd sort of complacency--on one hand, there is the demand for publications, but on the other, these publications better be in the field well traveled. In other words, the review process often encourages academic inertia on a grand scale. With law, that may be a good thing, but it makes no sense in science.
11.13.2005 8:43pm
frankcross (mail):
In my experience, the candidate has some input into who the reviewers are and certainly has the opportunity to identify those who would be unfair reviewers, because of a personal grudge or other reasons.

There's a good reason why peer reviewed journals have blind review and I think it extends to tenure matters. Most folks are nice and don't want to make enemies and won't be candid otherwise.
11.13.2005 8:48pm
tefta (mail):
To be as fair as possible, both the reviewer and the author should be anonymous. I thought that was the case in the sciences. Papers are sent for review without the author's name attached.

Tenure decisions are trickier because politics is often more of a factor than scholarship.
11.13.2005 8:53pm
Rick Garnett (mail):
At Notre Dame, the candidate for promotion is invited to submit names of prospective outside-reviewers, but the slate of outside-reviewers can only include a set number (I forget the number, but it is less than half) of the candidates' proposed names). The candidate -- e.g., me -- is not told the names of the outside reviewers, though my reviewers were all kind enough to disclose that fact (after the fact). I do not have a firm view, but I'm inclined to think that the process should not be anonymous.
11.13.2005 8:57pm
HowardWasserman (mail):
At FIU, like at Notre Dame, the candidate may submit a list of proposed outside reviewers, some of whom will be used. The candidate also is told the names of the school-selected reviewers (although it is not clear whether a candidate could veto a potentially biased reviewer for cause). The candidate is shown copies (unredacted and not anonymous) of the review letters and given the chance to respond to any comments prior to the faculty vote.

I think our process may be unusual for its openness. We also have had people decline to serve as outside reviewers upon learning of this openness and the fact that the candidate will see their letters.
11.13.2005 9:18pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
Out of curiosity, can you really be an anonymous reviewer if the candidate is a professor at a state school, or is your identity just a FOIA request away? And surely if one sues after being denied tenure, the referees' identity is discoverable?
11.13.2005 9:22pm
M (mail):
An attempt to discover the outside reviewers was part of a law suit brought by Peter Berkowitz (a colleage of Bernstein's now) when he was denied tenure at Harvard. All of my information on the situation came from an article in the now saddly defunct academic gossip rag _Lingua Franca_. My memory was that he was not able to find out the identity of the outside reviewers, though of course Harvard isn't a state school and it might be that the suit just ended before this could be forced. (I assume Bernstein could ask Berkowitz for the details more easily than any of the rest of us could.) The implication of the suit was that politics was involved, and that this is common was implied by someone above. But, I wonder if there's any actual evidence for this. I don't know about the government dept. but the philosophy dept. at Harvard didn't give tenure to _anyone_ for about 25 years. So, if politics was involved it was in a pretty weird way.

On student letters of recommendation, my understanding was that schools tend to take letters that don't waive the right to see the letter less seriously, for obvious reasons.

My impression from philosophy (though it's just an impression) is that outside reviewers are always anonymous and the reviews are never shown to the tenrure applicant. I'd expect there to be some variation from the norm, though.
11.13.2005 10:02pm
Hiram Hover (www):
I'm a historian, and my dept follows the practice described by several folks above: the prof up for review submits several candidates for outside reviewers, dept picks others, and both the identity of the final reviewers and the content of their reviews are not disclosed to the tenure seeker.

The Chronicle of Higher Ed had an opinion piece about "Evaluation and the Culture of Secrecy" (sub required) back in the summer, by Leonard Cassuto, an English professor at Fordham University.
11.13.2005 10:47pm
eeyn524 (mail):
Tenure in Engineering at a state school in Texas: membership in the tenure committees (department, college, university) is not anonymous especially since the members are elected, but who voted for and against is (theoretically) secret. Levels of review that consist of a single person (dept chair, dean, provost) obviously aren't anonymous at all. External reviews are not anonymous, and the contents of the tenure folder are open for inspection by the candidate at any time.

Paper reviews are always at least single blind in engineering journals, and sometimes double blind (i.e. reviewer doesn't know the name of the author).
11.13.2005 10:49pm
TJ (mail):
Paper reviews are always at least single blind in engineering journals, and sometimes double blind (i.e. reviewer doesn't know the name of the author).

This is only true in the formal sense. It is not at all difficult to discern the identity of the people whose papers you've reviewed in the double blind case.
11.13.2005 11:07pm
Wintermute (www):
I had a not-so-great contracts professor. According to some protocol, I was asked before graduation to write an evaluation of her to be used in a tenure decision; and I was given to understand that it would NOT be anonymous. Despite the unpleasantness involved, I felt I had to relate that she had made a weird statement close to election day on a horse-racing referendum the county was having, to the effect that her Christian faith compelled her to ask the class to vote against it. This had not been the only such interjection that year, but it was the worst in my mind. I saw her afterward, knowing that she knew I had written that; and I just had to smile politely and absorb the vibe.
11.13.2005 11:37pm
Lorenzo (mail):
From the different systems described, it looks like there's not only no set system, but no single set of principles to govern them. The issue to me looks like secrecy vs. openness. Whenever those two tangle, secrecy usually loses out, since the potential for harm is greater. I find it odd that academic institutions that proclaim the free and open exchange of ideas don't embrace the concept of openness.
11.13.2005 11:38pm
In a previous life, I worked at a big law firm. At an annual review, a partner anonymously complained about one aspect of the way I dressed while outside the office.

I thought this was cowardly and bad business. It was cowardly because a full partner had nothing to fear from a secon-year associate. It was bad business because I had been making the "mistake" for months by the time it was "corrected."

They paid me enough to enforce a certain image even off premises. But if it was that important, the partner could have taken me aside and told me to conform. If he didn't want to deal with it personally, he could have spoken to (or even just e-mailed) the partner who led my practice group.
11.14.2005 4:34am
eeyn524 (mail):
TJ: It is not at all difficult to discern the identity of the people whose papers you've reviewed in the double blind case.

You're right of course, and often you can guess who reviewed you in the single blind case. However, I do think the requirement that everyone treat the process as confidential helps reduce open sniping over the results.
11.14.2005 4:34am
akiva eisenberg (mail):
Based on the logic of "anonymity facilitates candor," should the identities of judges, juries, and witnesses be kept hidden?

Anonymity also facilitates bias and dishonesty, as witness many internet comments (perhaps this one?) and the internationally renowned "sources." The issue is not restricted to tenure decisions. Where to draw the line?
11.14.2005 4:58am
Jeroen Wenting (mail):
"To be as fair as possible, both the reviewer and the author should be anonymous. I thought that was the case in the sciences. Papers are sent for review without the author's name attached. "

While nice in theory this hardly works above a certain level.
Writing styles are often distinctive, and in many fields at the higher levels the number of people who COULD have written something is small enough that they all know each other and thus can guess pretty well who the author of something is.

Therefore such anonymity of the candidate is fine for lowlevel job where the candidate is likely unknown to the reviewers or at best not known well enough to be able to identify him from his writing, at high levels (which is where such practices are more common) it doesn't work.

"In his opinion, anything critical of my scholarship that he would be willing to say to my senior colleagues, he should be willing to say to me"

That's the best way, as it ensures honesty. Don't say anything about a person you're not willing to say to them face to face.
If you're fearing your comments to come back and haunt you, should you make them in the first place?
If the person you're commenting on is the kind to hold a grudge, why didn't you make sure that was known to the selection board before accepting the assignment to write that comment?
11.14.2005 5:39am
Jacob T. Levy (mail):
Shows how little I know; I hadn't even heard of tenure review systems in which the candidate got to see anonymous and redacted versions of the letters. Here the candidate doesn't see anything.
11.14.2005 8:16am
Remembering college applications, and looking ahead to grad school apps...

On the one hand, I can see the rationale.

On the other, I'm not so sure it clears the bar for it to make much sense.

Speaking *solely* of college and grad apps here, I've always found it a "Damned if I do, damned if I don't" thing.

On the one hand, if you check off the box and *refuse* the anonymity, it looks suspicious and you're almost guaranteed refusal.

On the other...Well, I'll be frank. I went from HS with very difficult circumstances academically and otherwise, and I have *always*, ever since, wondered whether I got into my school based on ADA (in short, take the disabled kid for diversity's sake) or because I actually deserved it.

When it comes to grad school apps (eventually), I'm in nearly the same situation (again).

I know better than to ask to see recommendation letters, but...

Y'know, when there's that nagging doubt, sometimes knowing, definitively, why a decision went the way it did (or just knowing the full details of what went into it)...It would help a lot.
11.14.2005 8:20am
Craig Oren (mail):
At my institution, the letters are confidential. If one is denied tenure, one can file a grievance. In that proceeding, another professor can see the letters and can testify about them in general terms.

We allow candidates to both designate some of the referees and to say whom they would prefer to not review their work.

I have done letters under both systems. I think our system encourages candor, and candor is something that's usually lacking anyway in tenure letters. On the other hand, keeping the letters confidential deprives the candidate the opportunity to know what is perceived to be wrong about the work. I think I would prefer that letters be shown to candidates once identifying information has been removed.
11.14.2005 9:07am
How do those of you at state universities deal with public records laws?

Unless there is a specific exemption for tenure decisions, I'd think that any member of the public could get any piece of paper or any electronic file (including e-mail) related to the tenure process.
11.14.2005 1:14pm
Roger Schlafly (www):
I agree with Buck that professors writing recommendations for students should let the student check the box (for the confidentiality waiver), and then give the student a copy of the letter anyway. It is the only fair thing to do, and it is what I did when I wrote letters.
11.14.2005 1:14pm
Dennis Nolan (mail):
At my law school, internal and external reviews are supposed to be anonymous. In fact, though, there aren't many secrets. The candidate knows who is on the evaluation committee and actually meets with those three faculty members when they prepare their recommendation. After a denial, a candidate can get redacted copies of all faculty evaluations, and it's sometimes possible to figure out an author's identity. Similarly, the candidate always receives redacted copies of the outside evaluations, and occasionally those too have identifying comments. And that's not even considering the (officially forbidden) communications to candidates by those who read the files and attend the tenure meeting. After some experience, I simply assume that whatever I write or say about a candidate here or at some other institution may be revealed to the subject. Since I'm tenured and senior, I don't have to trim my sails. If I were junior and especially untenured, I might feel some pressure to do so.
11.14.2005 6:38pm
For those of you at public universities, why is your need for privacy greater than the need of any other public office? In almost every government job, personnel files are public record. The idea is that the public should be able to see how "their" employees are doing.
11.15.2005 9:32am
Henry Schaffer (mail):
"To be as fair as possible, both the reviewer and the author should be anonymous. I thought that was the case in the sciences."

Most articles in the life sciences (probably other sciences, too) refer to previous work by the author. This makes it very hard to conceal the author - or at least the "group" for multiply authored papers.
11.15.2005 10:00pm