A tenure letter is an external letter of recommendation that is submitted to a tenure committee in support of a faculty member’s bid for permanent employment. The letter can come from a subordinate, colleague, or superior, depending upon the information sought by the tenure committee, but it will typically be requested from leaders in the candidate’s field of study who are asked to comment on the candidate’s potential to make a positive contribution to the field’s knowledge base.
Tenure is the employment system that provides certain faculty at colleges and universities with permanent employment contracts. The system is designed to protect academic freedom under the theory that faculty not under the threat of loss of employment will be free to espouse all viewpoints when teaching and publishing, not just the most popular. Not all faculty members are eligible for tenure. Only those hired into tenure-track positions can be considered, and only after a number of years on probation. Once the tenure-track faculty member has served the requisite probationary period, a tenure committee reviews his candidacy and makes a recommendation regarding whether or not to offer a permanent contract.
Part of the tenure committee review process is soliciting tenure letters. The committee first decides what type of criteria it is looking to substantiate. For example, the committee could be looking for an assessment of the candidate’s research potential, collegiality, or teaching acumen. The type of substantiation needed will determine the appropriate persons to submit a tenure letter in the candidate’s favor. A tenure letter could just as easily be requested of a former student as a former employer.
A tenure committee is typically concerned with the candidate’s potential to contribute to the research base of his chosen field. In this case, tenure letters would be solicited from prominent faculty in the field whom the candidate should have reason to know from years of working in the same field. Any tenure letter received is expected to contain a glowing review of the candidate’s potential.
The tenure candidate is typically asked to provide a list of potential recommenders who the candidate thinks would write an effective tenure letter. Then, the chair of the tenure committee would contact the people on the list directly or the candidate may have to make the request of the recommenders himself. In either case, the content of the tenure letter can make or break a candidate’s bid for permanent employment.