How to write an anti-racist tenure or promotion letter

November 17, 2022 • 1:00 pm

This article is from eLife as well, and I could write reams about it, but I’ll just say a few things. (I bet John McWhorter would have a lot of things to say about this!)

This set of guidelines about how to write a letter to get tenure or promotion for a black (or, in general minority) colleague is about the most patronizing thing I’ve seen, for it assumes that black people (victims of systemic racism in academia, of course) should not be held to the same standards that “white supremacy culture” has fostered. Instead they must be judged by more “holistic” standards that emphasize other things than research quality or traditional measures of academic success. For example, “mentorship” should count a lot more in an anti-racist letter than it does for a traditional letter, though of course all academics are judged by the students they teach and produce (I’m not aware that the temporal burden of “mentorship” or “role model time” is significantly higher for minority than for white faculty, though I’d be glad to see data).

This was written by (their words) a group of “mostly non-Black academics in STEM fields, most of us women, who are learning about and working toward Black liberation in academia.”

Click to read:

A few quotes:

According to Okun, “White supremacy culture is the widespread ideology baked into the beliefs, values, norms, and standards of our groups (many if not most of them), our communities, our towns, our states, our nation, teaching us both overtly and covertly that whiteness holds value, whiteness is value” ( Whether we are aware of it or not, academic culture is steeped in the beliefs and values Okun associates with ‘white supremacy culture’, including:

  • Perfectionism: the belief that there is ‘one right way’ to do things and a false sense that we can be objective, and that mistakes are personal.

  • Quantity over quality: valuing things that can be measured – publications, grant money – more highly than processes that are harder to quantify (e.g., mentoring relationships, morale).

  • Individualism: de-emphasis of team-work and collaboration and over-emphasis on individual achievement and competition.

  • Defensiveness: a tendency to protect current systems of power at the expense of hearing new ideas; perceiving criticisms as threats.

  • Sense of urgency: an imposed sense of urgency makes it difficult to take time to be inclusive and to reflect on and learn from mistakes, and draws attention away from truly urgent work for racial justice regardless of academic field.

These values are not a necessity in academia. Most of us, having been trained in this culture for years, may not even recognize these invisible but ever-present ‘rules of the game’ despite the fact that these rules limit creativity and inclusion. Naming these values as ones we have adopted makes clear that they are not axioms of academic culture. There are alternatives. Those of us committed to disrupting this implicit and harmful culture have a right and obligation to actively promote an academic community that recognizes and benefits from the expertise of all people who participate in academia. One way to accomplish this on an individual level is to reconsider how we write letters of assessment, including tenure and promotion letters, so that they embody the cultural shift we’d like to see.

This racist and stereotypical characterization of “white culture” is the same kind of stuff that the Smithsonian once posted, but then ditched out of embarrassment.

The aim of these guidelines is to completely change the nature of what’s considered “merit” in academia so that more minority people will qualify as meritorious:

The bulk of a tenure and promotion letter rests on the accomplishments of the candidate. Here, it is vitally important that you name all of the candidate’s accomplishments (Figure 1 middle, box 3). That is, in addition to mentioning traditional scholarship (papers, books, citations, invited talks, grants), you can expand your own – and the readers’ – notion of what a scholarly accomplishment is. For example, you should call attention to: grant applications submitted (and re-submitted), symposia organized, spaces and classes created, leadership and service to the department and academic community, leadership to and education of the community outside of academia, creation of public policy and impact on public health, and participation in public relations or recruiting efforts. When possible, frame this as scholarship rather than service, because many of these achievements reflect the scholar’s standing in the field.

And you must not forget to ad your own critique of systemic racism in the letter of recommenation, just to educate the people who will be reading the letter:

We encourage you to add literature-supported encouragement for evaluators to account for systemic racism in academia (Figure 1 middle, box 6). For example, you can include “Given the known racial disparities in grant funding (Taffe and Gilpin, 2021) and publication rates (Lerback et al., 2020), and the epistemic exclusion of minoritized faculty (Settles et al., 2022),…” to provide context for your statements. It is important here to account for the many interpersonal and institutional barriers experienced by Black scholars, and to critique the devaluation of their work that provides tangible benefits to the university but is often unappreciated (Rodríguez et al., 2015). It may be helpful to explicitly state “even though the evaluation criteria do not consider [service/outreach/etc.], I include my assessment in this area given the vital importance of these contributions to the department and the field, and research on disproportionate service done by scholars of Color.” We recommend emphasizing that achievement in spite of the systemic barriers enhances the value of the scholar’s accomplishments rather than offering such barriers as a rationale for any potential perceived weaknesses.

Umm. . . . this is supposed to be providing an evaluation of a person, not the whole system of academia. It’s to help a person, not change a culture! And I doubt that readers will welcome such attempts to “educate” them.

Further, stuff like this will not help the candidate at all:

To be sure, anti-racist tenure letters may be met with resistance and even backlash by tenure committees, as many academics are (implicitly) committed to maintaining power structures that are familiar to them, and that confer them with outsized power and privilege. We suggest to directly rebut, in your letter, what might traditionally be considered ‘weaknesses’ in the applicant’s file, by explicitly addressing why you do not consider these as weaknesses. This can be done throughout your letter (and we have suggested specific ideas for how to do this in the above recommendations), as well as in an explicit rebuttal paragraph, as we are doing here. Such resistance-anticipating arguments will provide much needed ammunition for other advocates involved in the tenure process at the candidate’s home institution.

There’s nothing that raises more red flags in a letter than a statement like “While Dr. Jones might seem to be weak in his number of publications, this isn’t really a weakness because Jones has spent less time on research than other candidates, as he’s spent much time mentoring students of color and serving as a role model.”  You do NOT call attention to a candidate’s weaknesses in such a way, and then try to excuse them, if you want that candidate promoted or hired.

I can’t help feeling that the drive to drastically change academic standards to achieve “equity” is a backwards approach, and that a better one might be changing the education pipeline so that more minority applicants meet the standards of excellence honed in STEM over decades and decades.


Here’s what the Smithsonian posted on the website of Washington, D. C.’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. and then took down because it “did not contribute to productive discussion”. I suggest that the essay above has the same effect:


14 thoughts on “How to write an anti-racist tenure or promotion letter

  1. We encourage you to add literature-supported encouragement for evaluators to account for systemic racism in academia…

    This isn’t extraneous; it looks like an implicit threat.

    …Such resistance-anticipating arguments will provide much needed ammunition for other advocates involved in the tenure process at the candidate’s home institution.

    Ah, just so.

  2. I don’t have data, but I do have years of experience in evaluating candidates for tenure and promotion at college-wide and university-wide level. My experience is that minority faculty, unless they resist, may find themselves facing very heavy demands for mentorship and for committee membership. This can also affect women. I would also say that how you (as a department chair) may deal with a weakness in the case for a candidate you want to promote is a matter of skill. If the best historian you’ve ever had can’t teach worth a damn, you may want to bring this up yourself, your way, so it isn’t brought up as an objection you have to meet. Dealing with weak cases of various sorts is what you do. This isn’t to say what the appropriate standards are.

  3. I don’t doubt that most people in the equity movement have a sincere desire to rectify perceived social wrongs, albeit in oftentimes misguided ways. But I do wonder how many promulgators of this sort of nonsense are, themselves, troubled by merit and rigorous scrutiny of their own work (whether they be mediocre or accomplished yet lacking in confidence; preferring to be “supportive / supported” rather than “critical” in pursuit of a “false” objectivity). I also wonder how many of them are, in essence, expressing personal preferences for a workplace culture more in line with their own interests and emphases (for wanting work that involves helping others; for building relationships, mentoring, and collaborating over the sometimes lonely work of long hours alone in research or writing or chasing grant money).

  4. … for it assumes that black people (victims of systemic racism in academia, of course) should …

    Jerry, you know way more about academia in the US than I do, but is it really the case that American academia is “systemically racist” against back people in any sensible meaning of that phrase?

    1. I have never experienced it. Au contraire, most STEM departments, the ones I know best, are desperate to get minority profs and grad students, and NEVER have I heard a racist remark by a scientist in my entire career–save a few bigoted statements when I once had a two-hour meeting with Jim Watson.

  5. Patronising and regressive. Not a good look and I would be interested to see John McWhorter’s response to this nonsense.

  6. Skeptic Magazine has a piece on systemic or structural racism. I bought the issue at the recommendation I saw by a reader. My synopsis is : the best case of structural or systemic racism is to be found in the real estate or housing industry in the United States, with the victims being Black descendants of slaves in the south.

  7. Jerry, did you catch this “other ways of knowing” crapola in one of the response to peer review sections of the paper? Ugh.

    “We wholeheartedly agree, and our impetus in introducing Okun’s framework is to clarify that there are alternatives – we can adopt other values, we can value other ways of knowing, and other knowledge systems. We have now tried to say this more explicitly when introducing White Supremacy Culture (see the text reproduced above). In particular, our call to “recognize that our personal biases influence both our scientific practice and our tendency to uphold these values of scientific pursuit. If we are to move beyond these exclusionary practices, we must recognize these biases in all of our academic practices and value other knowledge systems beyond that of the ‘traditional’ epistemology of science.” is trying to explicitly name the work that must be done, in terms of being aware of these biases, recognizing their possible effects, and working to counteract them, as per the post-positivism framework (we decided to not explicitly name post-positivism as readers may not be familiar with that term).”

  8. Every time I see that “White Culture” graphic again I seriously find myself wanting to kick someone’s idiotic ass, preferably the bozo-cum-racist SOBs who put it together. I believe, if I recall correctly, that it was pretty quickly 86’d … or is it still in use?

    So insulting and stupid, to everyone, including non-white-people.

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