Monday, December 18, 2006

The Letter, the Market and "Easy Writers"

At times like these I sincerely wish I knew how to take a poll of MoneyLaw readers and law professors generally to see if they agree with what follows. I do not claim to know whether it is accurate or not.

[Update: Webmaster Gil Grantmore has installed a MoneyLaw poll at the bottom of this post. Be sure to vote.]

Recently a friend at another school and I discussed how his faculty would react to a less-than-glowing tenure review letter. In the course of the conversation, he made two observations. The first was that Tenure and Promotion Committees and outside reviewers generally understand that outside reviewers are supposed to help the committee “get the candidate through.” Then he went on to name some well-known scholars who were not asked for review letters because, as he put it, “they will actually say what they really think.” This was not the first time I had heard that the job of Tenure and Promotion Committees is to “get the candidate through.” It seemed to be the case at my school until relatively recently. (I assume this is primarily a middle or lower ranked school phenomenon.)

If my friend is right, there is in legal education a "market" for letters. The demand side is composed of Committees that are candidate advocates and steer clear of reviewers who “say what they really think." Suppliers are reviewers who, although moaning and groaning about the work involved, give the committees what they are asking for – all in coded terms, of course. Those frequently asked to provide reviews, under this theory, need to ask why they their services are in high demand. Would they be just as popular and their opinions so valued if they were a tad more candid?

If the theory holds and everything else is equal, the number of letters requested and written could be inversely related to a reviewer’s candor and integrity. Perhaps salary increases should be granted in inverse relation to the number of review letters written. This would not work, I know, because money is hardly the motivating factor. More importantly, I have seen many letters in which reviewers do say what they think. In fact there may be two markets: one for the easy letter and the other for the "what you really think" letter. Only the reviewers themselves know which market they are supplying. The problem is that the "easy writers" surely have erected an elaborate matrix of rationalizing mechanisms that protect them from self awareness.

We have all seen a version of the "easy writer" when students stampede to fill the sections of courses taught by teachers who require little and give high grades. I feel certain that even "easy writers" frown on student shopping. My school and others have imposed grading curves to respond to the high grade suppliers. If the "easy writer" theory holds, it's unfortunate that a comparable control cannot be applied to review suppliers.

In a way, the "market for letters" theory is, at least intuitively, my friend's. So, here is the question: Is there a demand for "easy writers?" Your replies are anonymous and a simple yes or no will suffice.

[Update: As promised, a MoneyLaw poll appears at left. Be sure to vote; the Jurisdynamics Network permits one vote per IP address.]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this is a very important post. One thing I'm curious about is the roll that interdisciplinary politics plays in this area. For example, if the tenure candidate writes in a particular field -- law and economics, law and society, critical studies, etc. -- the letters will naturally come from people in that field. Are people asked to write these letters inclined to write positive letters in order to support the acceptance and prominence of their discipline regardless of the goals of the tenure committee? If so, is there anything that can be done to encourage more sincere letters? If not, is there an alternative to the tenure letter?

5/02/2007 11:46 AM  

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