Against Letters of Recommendation for Academic Jobs (updated)

“The practice of soliciting letters of recommendation for academic positions is both foolish and immoral.”

So begins a post by University of Colorado philosophy professor Michael Huemer at What’s Wrong? 

Part of the problem, he says, stems from a tension in the role of the letter writer:

The theory behind this practice is that the committee doesn’t have time to familiarize itself with the work of all the hundreds of candidates who are applying, so they rely on an outside person who is already familiar with that work. Thus, the letter writer is, in theory, acting as the agent of the committee, with the task of helping the committee select the best person. In reality, most letter writers conceive themselves as agents of the candidate, with the task of helping their friend (the candidate) get the position that the friend wants.

The letters end up being useless, and the profession’s reliance on them has bad effects. Here are a few reasons why:

(1) The probative value of “letters of recommendation” is approximately zero… It’s basically like asking, “Tell us whom you’re friends with, and let’s see who can get their friends to say the most exaggerated things about them.”

(2) It contributes to a system in which the most coveted, scarce goods are distributed according to personal connections, rather than merit.

(3) It creates incentives for people to curry favor with the “big names” in the profession and thereby causes more of this to happen…

(4) It unfairly rewards people who are unashamed about bothering their friends for favors, while systematically disadvantaging people who are considerate of their friends’ time, or who tend to make friends with low-status people, or who tend to have unusually honest friends.

(5) It is manipulative. It recruits outside people to do work for the committee… but without paying them or giving them any benefit in return… 

(6) It imposes an utterly unreasonable cost on the profession. [By requiring letters of recommendation, an institution offering one position]  is imposing hundreds or thousands of man-hours of labor on the profession

See the original post for elaboration on these points.

Discussion welcome.

UPDATE: The following is from David Boonin (Colorado):

In case your readers are interested, here is the background on Mike’s blog post: our Center for Values and Social Policy is currently conducting a search for Visiting Fellows for the 2018-19 academic year.  The ad is online here.  We were originally going to require two letters of recommendation, but Mike sent me an e-mail suggesting that we drop that requirement and explaining why.  I found his arguments pretty compelling, decided not to ask for letters this year as a result, and asked him to write his points up as a blog post.  So a note to your readers: if you work in the values area and will be on paid leave (or retired) during part or all of the coming academic year, you can apply for one of our visiting fellowships without being unfairly disadvantaged for being someone who is considerate of your friends, or who tends to make friends with low-status people, or who tends to have unusually honest friends…

(photo of untitled sculpture by Tara Donovan)

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