Some colleagues and I have been musing lately about the role of external review letters in hiring and promotions and how we approach writing such letters when asked. In particular, one colleague raised the question whether people are now more cautious when writing these letters than they may have been, say, 10 years ago ie in the sense that if you can't write anything positive, you decline the invitation to write. I don't know if this is the case or not, but I'm interested in what we all take into account when invited to write such letters. Time permitting, I will generally write a letter if I can write something positive or at least balanced. And I can't say I've ever been asked to write a letter for someone whose work I didn't know relatively well, so it's never been impossible for me to judge upfront whether I would say something positive or not. In other words, I've never been in the situation of having been asked to write a letter for someone whose work I didn't think was very good. I have declined writing letters when I'm not up to date with someone's work and don't really have time to read recent scholarship. And I've also declined writing (usually for peer reviewed journals) when the article isn't really in my area eg when it's interdisciplinary work and the focus is on the non-law part. However, sometimes I will write for those journals when they assure me that they have at least one other referee who will comment substantively on parts of the article on which I am unable to comment.
And when we do write these letters, who do we feel we are really writing for ie in the P&T or appointments context? Do we feel we are writing to inform the faculty on its vote, or are we really providing a paper trail for the package as it wends its way through central administration? Or a little of both? And how much attention do we generally pay to the individual school's or university's bylaws on promotions and appointments?