Problematic Letters of Recommendation for Students and How to Handle Them


Here’s a story that involves a well-meaning professor who wrote a rather unusual letter of recommendation for a student, some other well-meaning professors at PhD programs the student applied to who notified him that the letter was (in the words of one of them) “unhelpful and inappropriate,” and a department chair who attempted to handle the situation. It ends with the first professor losing his job.

illustration by Mark Powell

The letter of recommendation was written by Paul Bali, an instructor in philosophy at Ryerson University, for a student of his who was applying to philosophy PhD programs. He recounts the story here.

In an attempt to make this post and any ensuing discussion helpful, I’ve included a number of the questions I think this story raises, along with some initial answers, which readers are welcome to supplement and comment on. I would ask commenters to keep their points constructive: the aim of the post is to learn from the story, rather than rake people over the coals.

Bali writes:

On Jan 16 2019 I got an email from a Philosophy Chair at a U.S. program my student had applied to. She said she’d just read my letter of reference and was compelled to tell me it “is entirely unhelpful and inappropriate; it is not useful or correctly informative for Admissions Committees and their decisions.”

She knew my student was “promising,” she said, from the two other support letters she’d received—both from a prestigious U.K. school where my student had just completed an M.A.. She wondered if I was ignorant of what a customary reference letter looks like, since mine “was more likely to harm than to help.” She advised me to retract it from wherever my student had applied if I “cared about the student’s prospects.”

After the initial complaint, a second professor at a different institution wrote to Bali’s chair with concerns about the letter of recommendation he had written.

Question 1: What should you do if you receive a letter of recommendation for a student applying to your program that you think is inappropriate or unhelpful to the recommended student?

 

Letters of recommendations need not be 100% positive, of course. Professors are asked for their honest assessment of students and sometimes that will involve some minor criticism (I assume professors who are unable to say positive things about their students decline requests to write them letters of recommendation, as they should.) Such minor criticism is not grounds for raising questions about a letter. But if a letter is overwhelmingly negative, or focuses on irrelevant aspects of the student, or is written quite poorly, or is weird in a way that reflects badly on the student or raises doubts about the judgment of the letter writer, then it may be worth doing something about. What, though?

The first step would be for the reader to consult with colleagues to make sure this is not an idiosyncratic judgment on her part. If it’s agreed that the letter is problematic, then it seems like a good idea for a representative of the department to communicate this to the letter writer. I think it’s generally reasonable, and collegial, to assume that letter writers have their students’ interests in mind and that they would want to know if their letters are inadvertently hurting their prospects. Such communication, ideally, should quote the problematic passages and explain why they are problematic, as well as request a revised letter as soon as possible. (The latter is a way of not punishing the applicant for a letter-writer’s mistake.)

Question 2: What should you do when a faculty member at a school to which a student of yours is applying advises you about a problem with your letter of recommendation for that student?

If you agree with the criticism, or while disagreeing with it see how someone could reasonably make it, then you should revise the letter and take available steps to have the revised version replace the original one in your student’s applications.

If you think the criticism is wrongheaded or unreasonable, a good idea is to ask a couple of colleagues to read the letter and see whether they notice any problems with it. If they do, you should, again, revise the letter accordingly and take available steps to have the revised version replace the original one.

There are a couple of things you should not do.

Don’t get defensive about it. This is your student’s future at stake—a student who put her trust in you to help her get into graduate school. Your student’s aim takes priority over preserving your ego here.

Don’t turn the complaint into an opportunity for argument. Perhaps an extended philosophical discussion would ultimately convince a reader that there is nothing wrong with your letter, but this does not matter, since you won’t be having this extended philosophical discussion with most of the letters’ readers. Besides, time is of the essence. Just revise the letter.

Don’t ask your student what to do. This puts the student in a difficult position of having to choose between asking for a revised letter at the risk of offending one of the people she’s most dependent on for her future success, or settling for the unrevised letter at the risk of it jeopardizing her chances with admissions committees.

Don’t infer from your student’s success in gaining admission to a program that the complained-about letter is unproblematic. Your student may have succeeded despite your letter, and may have done even better with a better letter from you or someone else.

Question 3: What makes for a problematic letter of recommendation for an applicant to PhD programs?

This question is addressed somewhat here.

Letters may be problematic because they: discuss irrelevant things about the candidate (such as her looks), reveal personal problems the candidate may have without her permission, and use language which plays into stereotypes which may disadvantage the candidate, among other reasons.

Letters may also be problematic because they convey that the letter writer lacks good judgment, since this can undermine the author’s praise for the student. It is difficult to make general remarks about what, in a letter, would do this.

Readers can check out excerpts from Bali’s letter at his post (scroll down to the section “The Letter Itself”).

According to Bali, after the second complaint, his chair asked him about the letter. Bali defended the letter, and complained about the vagueness of the criticisms of it, but did not provide his chair with a copy of it. After a month or so, says Bali, his chair received authorization from the human resources department at Ryerson to demand a copy of the letter. Bali continued to refuse, and met with his chair only “under protest” in the company of union representatives. After another month Bali received a “letter of discipline” from his chair that “noted my continued insubordination for not surrendering my letter, and claimed my emailed language had become hostile and disrespectful—in violation of the University’s Civility policy.” It set a deadline for a few days later to hand over a copy of the letter. Bali continued to resist, and ultimately lost out to another candidate for a renewal of his instructorship owing to a low score on “interactability.” It appears he never handed over the letter.

Question 4: Who has the right to see a confidential letter of recommendation for student? (And with whom are recipients of confidential letters of recommendation permitted to share its content?)

I don’t know the answers to these questions, which may vary by university and jurisdiction (Ryerson is in Ontario).

A lawyer for Bali’s union, in response to a summary of events Bali composed, offered the following opinions:

    • The letter is likely not Bali’s intellectual property.
    • The principles of academic freedom “do not generally fully protect an individual from allegations that their conduct is illegal or vexatious or improper.”
    • Bali’s refusal to submit the letter is insubordinate, and an arbitrator would find it so.
    • The University could enforce their demand for the letter through the Ontario Courts, and Bali could be found in contempt of court.

Bali, in his defense, notes: “There’s nothing in the Collective Agreement covering reference letter writing, nothing (as far as I can tell) in any law or Ryerson policy that requires one to write letters that ‘read well’ to all receivers. What is the particular, nameable infraction in my letter or in my interactions with my student?”

One commentator, asked for his opinion about the case by the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, Bali reports, said “I think the professor should resist turning over the letter. Confidentiality of letters of reference is an important principle; if it is not maintained, such letters will quickly lose their value. How can you speak candidly about a student if you never know who might be demanding to read it?”

Even if you think, as I do, that things never should have gotten this far in this case, and that the inability to resolve matters through cordial, professional discussion is a sign of other problems, it would be good to know what the rules and standard practices are regarding gaining access to and sharing confidential letters of recommendation.

Discussion welcome, especially answers to the questions in this post and the raising of other relevant general questions.

 


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