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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Jon Light
Jon Light
2 years ago

This is a really interesting case. First, on the issues of intellectual property, insubordination, etc., those are defined differently in Canada–and through Ryerson HR–than we are used to in the US. So it might just be straightforwardly true that: (1) Prof. Bali doesn’t have IP over the letter; and (2) he was insubordinate (and uncivil). Just as descriptive matters of fact, not as normative assessments (i.e., we could wish it were otherwise, but it isn’t).

Second, at my program, our DGS screens letters that go out. It’s voluntary and we don’t have to submit them, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. I also don’t know that anyone has ever minded, since the goal is to clear up anything that might disadvantage the student–particularly as unintended by the letter-writer. I’ve certainly appreciated (and incorporated) feedback in that regard on ones I’ve written. Even at an undergraduate-only program, it would be easy to set up some sort of (optional) review system.

Third, and I mean this constructively, we often have students ask for letters from instructors who shouldn’t be writing them. There could be all sorts of reasons for this, ranging from experience to reputation to prospective contents. Of course, students might not always have tons of options (e.g., they’ve had few instructors, started philosophy late, and so on). There should also be resources on that, e.g., a graduate or undergraduate advisor, who could advise students on whom to ask (and whom to avoid). What’s underemphasized in this post, I think, is that “Karen” was ultimately harmed by the letter, and her faculty didn’t help get her in the best place to succeed.Report

AO
AO
2 years ago

Sorry if this is too harsh, but is his audience for that letter “continental” academic philosophers or high school stoners who haven’t outgrown purple prose? I don’t see how he didn’t cringe while writing that letter. And a male version of that letter would be inconceivable. If you’re going to take an extreme risk like that on someone’s letter of recommendation, ask fellow faculty members to look it over.Report

ccccc
ccccc
Reply to  AO
2 years ago

I don’t think we have to insult other schools of philosophy to get the point that this letter is cringeworthy and has an unneeded and unhelpful prose style. What you call “continental” philosophy has other standards for writing philosophy, but it has similar and professional standards for letters. No need for shade.Report

Peacekeeper
Peacekeeper
Reply to  ccccc
2 years ago

Just to point out, Bali described style as appropriate for the audience of continental philosophers to whom it was addressed. So I don’t think AO was insulting continental philosophers, but taking issue with the claim that this is the kind of thing continental philosophers actually like.Report

AO
AO
Reply to  ccccc
2 years ago

Spot on, Peacekeeper. In addition to that, though, I put “continental” because I don’t want to artificially reinforce the “analytic/continental divide.” No shade intended. Existentialism, Freudo-Marxism (incl. Zizek), and discourse analysis drew me into philosophy, not Russell’s theory of descriptions and Naming and Necessity.Report

Candlesticks
Candlesticks
Reply to  AO
2 years ago

“And a male version of that letter would be inconceivable.”

Have you never heard of Avital Ronell?

In general though, I wonder how many of you have ever served on a hiring committee? I have only served on a few, but the amount of weirdness I have seen would make a letter like this only moderately noticeable.Report

ccccc
ccccc
2 years ago

What I’d like to highlight is that there is a promising woman who is now likely not getting into good graduate programs because of this professor. And there are many women and minority students having trouble getting into good programs or other opportunities because of these all too common problematic letters. I organized a summer school where we asked for letters and we had only one in many years without problematic (in particular sexist) letters.
These letters have the purpose of helping the student and in the admission process, (borderline) creepy letters help no one and most likely have negative impact for the students.Report

Andrew
Andrew
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
2 years ago

But he does say that this same letter was used for applications to each of the 11 MA programs.

This is way off topic, but I’m curious: Is it unusual for a student who recently completed an MA program to go back to an undergraduate instructor for a PhD application?Report

Tim O'Keefe
Reply to  Andrew
2 years ago

It’s unusual but not super-rare, at least in my experience advising MA students from GSU applying to PhD programs. I’ve sometimes had students ask me about it, and here is what I say:

–You should emphasize your recent grad-level work much more than older undergrad-level work, so make sure to get 3 letters from profs at your MA program.
–If you have letters only from your MA program, that’s 100% fine.
–That said, students have usually been in the MA program for 1 1/2 years when they’re applying out, or 2 years if they apply out after finishing the degree, and some letter-writers may have had them in only one class. So if there is an undergrad prof who knows you particularly well and thinks highly of you–let’s say you had them in many classes, or did a year-long honors thesis with them, or whatever–then asking them to be a 4th letter writer might be useful, as they might be able to write a nice, detailed letter that adds to the picture the other letters paint.

I think that in most cases it would not help much to request the additional letter, but occasionally it makes sense.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Tim O'Keefe
2 years ago

I would hope that it goes without saying that an undergraduate instructor who writes a letter recommending a student for entrance to an MA program, and then also writes a letter for that same student applying to PhD programs a year or two later, should absolutely make at least *some* edits to the letter to indicate that they are aware of the student’s continuing academic development since leaving the undergraduate institution.

But then, it sounds like the person in this story needed this to be said.Report

gradcommitteemember
gradcommitteemember
Reply to  Andrew
2 years ago

Yes, but generally admissions to PhD programs are much more competitive than admissions to MA programs, so I think Justin is correct when he says not to “infer from your student’s success in gaining admission to a program that the complained-about letter is unproblematic.”Report

heartbroken by my broken students
heartbroken by my broken students
2 years ago

I just want to say that even the minimal content that this instructor posted of this letter, particularly in combination with the fact that he discussed all of this with the student in question, is going to set off serious alarm bells in any of us (mostly but not exclusively!) women faculty who deal regularly with students who have been the subject of sexual harassment, grooming, and even sexual assault by faculty members. I don’t know about other women in the academic world, but I talk to these students regularly. My university’s confidential sexual health resource center has an entire group therapy support group for them (and this is NOT unusual for large-ish universities in the US). I bring this up because I object to the way Justin framed this post. I think it’s entirely possible that this instructor should not have lost his job, and I think it is very important that we defend the rights of faculty, particularly of course non tenure stream faculty. But there are lots of details we don’t know, and we’ve only heard one side of the story. But the reason I object is that I don’t live on the planet on which it is at all obvious that this instructor is “well-meaning”. At minimum, he has an inappropriate (I don’t mean sexually inappropriate) and unprofessional relationship with his student, and seems to be completely infatuated with her. Grooming, open infatuation with your students, and professionally inappropriate relationships with them is NOT “well-meaning”. It’s wrong, it’s obvious that it’s wrong, it’s selfish and power-hungry, and it deeply harms students.

And while we don’t know the details, even the evidence that this person himself provides show that there was at least a quite inappropriate relationship between him and his (undergraduate!) student.Report

Michel
Michel

I thought the same.

Perhaps it’s worth adding to Justin’s initial post (unless I missed it!): a letter of recommendation should be *about the student* and what *she’s* done, not about *you* and what *you’ve* done.

That letter sounds like it”s almost entirely about the instructor, and it sounds creepy and off the deep end. If I read such a letter, however, I don’t see how I could possibly hold it against the student.Report

Bianca
Bianca

I actually find it really difficult to judge whether the content of the letter is inappropriate or not, since I don’t know/understand the references he makes. The principle of charity compels me to consider that it’s also very possible that this professor was just attempting to write a very positive, enthusiastic letter of recommendation with a literary twist, suited to the students particular field of interest, so as to make the letter more memorable. As he himself claims.
What makes you think he is infatuated with her, has an inappropriate relationship with her, etc?Report

Aaron V Garrett
Aaron V Garrett
Reply to  Bianca
2 years ago

They are references to Philip K. Dick’s novel Valis, in which a middle-aged stoner named Horselover Fats begins to have visions of Sophia and all of sudden gains the capacity to speak in Aramaic. It’s a first-rate novel — his masterpiece.
The letter-write has Dick on his CV, and it would be appropriate to teach in a philosophy of religion class since it is a wonderful presentation of gnostic religion in novel form.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VALISReport

Bianca
Bianca
2 years ago

This will veer somewhat off topic, but I think it’s useful to consider too:
I think the reason this “thing” escalated so far is not to do with questions concerning letters of recommendation. The main problem, I think, is that the disagreement took place over email. Personally, I find it’s never a good idea to have such ‘conversations’ digitally. It’s easy to misinterpret the other party’s intention/tone of voice, and to become hostile or defensive. I suspect that if the two professors here had just met up to talk things over, much of the escalation could have been avoided. So my advice to everyone here: if there is a problem you want to address, if someone has (digitally) told you they have a problem with you, or in general if you are a party in a digital disagreement: if at all possible, insist you meet up face to face, and avoid discussing the matter further digitally. In most cases, this will help to resolve the disagreement, or at least to prevent it from escalating too far (as it did in this case).Report

Portia
Portia
Reply to  Bianca
2 years ago

I agree! I don’t understand Bali’s aversion to just having an in-person chat with the chair.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
2 years ago

Just on Justin’s last question (and answering at the level of professional ethics, not Canadian law): some tentative thoughts.

Are the contents of a letter of reference covered by academic freedom? I would have thought: mostly not. I’m writing it as part of my professional obligations (so there’s no general ‘extra-mural speech’ justification); some aspects of a letter’s content might come under the ‘freedom of research and teaching’ defense but it’s perfectly possible for a letter to contain obviously-inappropriate content, and even many bits of appropriate content don’t seem covered. (Are assessments of student ability, or colleague ability, covered by academic freedom? Surely not, at least not to the exclusion of all else: if I give a student poor grades because I think his tattoo looks stupid, and I say so in my feedback, he’s got a reasonable complaint against me!)

Does academic freedom directly mean that your line manager/supervisor/Chair can’t see my letter? I’d say not. Insofar as the letter isn’t protected by academic freedom (see above) then there’s no case; even insofar as it is protected, that doesn’t create any direct expectation of confidentiality. (I’m not entitled by academic freedom to keep my research confidential when being considered for renewal or tenure.) Performance management absolutely involves evaluating material protected by academic freedom.

Is there an indirect ‘chilling effect’ reason to think that academic freedom is threatened by my line manager/supervisor/Chair seeing your letter? Well, *maybe* (it depends on how much the letter is protected by academic freedom in the first place). But that’s not in itself a reason for a prohibition. Lots of other processes (e.g., tenure/renewal/pay rises) potentially create that indirect ‘chilling effect’, but we accept that because the institution has a sufficiently good legitimate motive for action that outweighs it. Here, an institution has a pretty clear interest in furthering the success of its students in the job market, so faced with reasonably good prima facie reasons for concern, a Chair seems within their rights to see material here. (And hence, if I refuse to cooperate with my Chair’s request, that’s legitimate grounds for disciplinary action.)

Do I have some expectation of privacy for a letter of reference? I don’t think so, at least if I wrote it in my capacity as a member of the Faculty of my university. It’s not something I’m doing on a personal basis, it’s part of my job, and my employer can reasonably want to see things I produce as part of my job. Writing a letter for one of my students pretty clearly comes into that category. I think it would be different if, say, I was writing a tenure letter: I’m being asked to do that not qua member of USC’s philosophy faculty, but qua expert in the field, and it’s not my Chair’s business what I write. (I can see that there are blurred boundaries here: for instance, I still write letters of reference for Oxford students who I taught, even though I don’t work for Oxford any more.)

Is the value of a letter of reference reduced if it isn’t held completely confidential? I can see that its value is diminished by the possibility that it gets seen by the person it’s about, but I can’t see what the prima facie concern is with it being seen by my Chair or other members of my institution. I guess I can imagine theoretical circumstances where I want to communicate something very secret that I don’t want colleagues to know, e.g. that the student was sexually harassed by one of those colleagues – but if it’s that sensitive, it almost certainly shouldn’t go into a letter of reference anyway, given that the letter will be read by dozens or hundreds of people.

Was it appropriate for this faculty member to (in effect) lose his job over the incident? God knows, that’s not the sort of thing you can assess from afar and on the basis of one person’s report.Report

SH
SH
2 years ago

As others have noted, this letter sets off every possible alarm bell for grooming and abuse, and I would have complained if I had been on the admissions committee, too. This post seems to miss the point (even Bali’s post freely names the accusation as one of “gender impropriety”.)

Does Bali ever explain why, since his letter was so intensely private that it could not be shared with his chair, he saw fit to post lengthy excerpts on the internet?

And what, exactly, is Against Professional Philosophy up to, publishing this tear-jerking tale of a ‘well-meaning’ middle-aged man who lost his job for the minor crimes of antagonizing his boss and using professional communications to prattle about how he fantasizes about his young female students as reincarnated goddesses? I’m not familiar with the site and this is not a flattering first impression.Report

Tim O'Keefe
Reply to  SH
2 years ago

The proprietors of the site give their own reactions to Bali’s post at https://againstprofphil.org/2019/06/14/on-paul-balis-how-i-got-fired-by-the-ryerson-philosophy-department/ . You can read the whole thing yourself, but here are a couple of excerpts, to give you a taste:

[RW]: “I wonder what was the agenda of the instigator of this affair, the de-plumed nom X? Usually people are not motivated by trivialities like the tone of a reference. People are psychological, emotional jellyfish, motivated by fear of hurtful change or greed for selfish gain. I could imagine X might have been discombobulated by a peculiar “paean” in support of a student’s application, then drawn in by a collusion of interests whose concerns about a “radical” professor were waiting for a case to catalyse action.”

[…]

[Z]: “I wonder what is really at the heart of this?

Either the Xs of this world have gone completely mad in their addiction to coercive moralism, which in-&-of-itself would only hurt themselves, by messing up their souls but also fucking up other people’s lives, to their own persistent shame; or are they also victims, swept up by the confused zeal of self-policing?”

[…]

[Z] “Over time, as essentially embodied minds and rational agents, we gain a feel for the “rules of the game” associated with various social contexts and deepen our understanding of how we are expected to behave.

As institutions evolve, however, they can all-too-easily spiral downwards into reactionary conservatism, coercive authoritarianism, and coercive moralism.

The “new normal” is one of fearfulness, self-protection, addiction to coercive power, and lashing out at perceived enemies inside or outside that social institution, the Others.”Report

Tim O'Keefe
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
2 years ago

Yeah, [Z] in the discussion above is Robert Hanna. (Did not realize this when I was looking over the post I pasted portions from, but the site does make it clear that Z=Robert Hanna.)Report

KikiC
KikiC
Reply to  SH
2 years ago

No -I don’t see, necessarily, alarms for grooming and abuse here (and I am a victimologist and also therapist, who treats victims of grooming, sexual abuse, and other trauma, also a survivor of severe sexual trauma – I take victimization, abuse, abuses of power extremely seriously). It looks like Bali wrote the kind of letter he would choose to write, not the kind of letter many others would. No one has to like it, people are entitled to think it is a bad letter – but he is entitled to be different in his approach, without being so personally maligned. He is entitled to dignity and respect when approached by others about their concerns – not to be placed in the middle of collusive effort in which he is called to account based on secretive conversations that occurred behind his back by those with significantly more power in the situation. I have seen certain things on this comment thread that are disturbing, that constitute an actual targeting and abusive dynamic – for example, there are ageist undertones to referring to him as middle-aged, as though that itself indicates evidence of creepy intent. Perhaps you could share what specifically you see as alarms for grooming and abuse? I think we need to be careful about making these kinds of serious accusations and character attacks that are based on personal inferences and pretty much zero evidence.Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
2 years ago

Justin, if you don’t mind my asking, you seem to be taking a much heavier hand editing these comments than you have in some of your other threads. This includes threads, like your t philosopher post, where you explicitly try to limit the course of discussion but then don’t seem to do anything when people do exactly those things you asked them not to. I guess my question is, I’m having a hard time understanding your own understanding of what your duties or obligations are as an editor of this blog. Why is it that in your t philosopher post, you seemed okay with allowing a great deal of explicit ad hominem and abuse while in other threads you’re much more reticent? It can’t be the stakes (if anything the stakes were higher in that other post than in this one) so what’s the background policy?Report

Junior faculty question
Junior faculty question
2 years ago

Totally apart from the letter and the professor’s relationship with the student, I wanted to ask about his relationship to his chair in his account of the events. His chair receives a complaint about his recommendation letter, and so the chair wants to meet and talk about it. His reaction is a series of emails about how this is bullshit, is somehow asking for too much, and is a product of borderline gender discrimination. He refuses to meet with the chair, seems to think a request for a meeting is insulting, and demands to be backed-up.

Since I’m about to start a job myself, I guess I would like to have it affirmed that this is a ridiculous way to act towards one’s chair, right? I know that the professor/chair relationship is not the same as the employee/boss relationship. I also understand that we need to be advocates for ourselves and that what’s easiest for or in the interests of our institutions may not be what’s in our interests. Still, taking offense at a request to see the letter and meet about it is unfathomable to me. According to him, he seems to literally say, “you’ve more than enough info now to defend me from this bullshit charge. instead, you go with the flow of the bullshit” and “let me know when you have something actionable.” And this is a part of his defense of his own conduct?Report

Bianca
Bianca
Reply to  Junior faculty question
2 years ago

Yes, it is a ridiculous way to act towards one’s chair. Even more so: I wouldn’t recommend behaving in this way towards anyone, regardless of the nature of your relationship with them. I suspect this is what got him in trouble more than the exact content of the letter. I’d say you can trust your sense of commen decency; it seems to be working properly 😉Report

D.C.
D.C.
Reply to  Junior faculty question
2 years ago

I suspect he realized the letter reflected poorly on himself, so was trying to cut it off.

Smart thing to do would be to apologize to all parties involved, and claim he just thought the student was promising and was trying to make her application stand out.Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
2 years ago

look, there are a lot of angles to take here m, but from a bigger picture this is the most salient one to me:

“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’s hard to read this and not think this is exactly the sort of thing that makes so few people in academia able to speak sincerely or frankly anymore. if this is innocuous or normal to you, then perhaps try to understand how bureaucratically bonkers this looks from the outside. a human resources department contacted a professor over a “problematic” letter of recommendation, regarded the professor as “hostile”, and claimed the professor was in violation of a “civility policy”. there isn’t a universe where I’m going to read this and think “yeah, this is a place where I can say what’s on my mind.”Report

Junior faculty question
Junior faculty question
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
2 years ago

I don’t know. I would think ayone who’s ever had a job outside of academia would read the account and be bowled over by how much slack he’s given about his behavior. He goes months without complying with a reasonable request, makes it clear he will not settle things without engaging maximum bureaucracy, has to be compelled by HR, has a union rep, and then receives a…written warning for mouthing off as much as possible. And this is his side of the story!

Is a job as a professor supposed to guarantee me more than this? Am I’m supposed to be worried about the state of academic freedom? Maybe I was just on the market for too long to realize that once you have a job you get to say whatever whenever and to whomever you want.Report

Bianca
Bianca
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
2 years ago

Ah, interesting how you interpret this so differently from me. I read it as: a chair receives a complaint about one of his professors, but when he tries to talk about it with him, the professor refuses to meet up. The chair then contacts HR, per university policy, who tell him he his in his right to demand to see the letter. When he then does so, the professor still refuses to discuss the letter. It is, by the way, not HR but the chair who contacted the professor, and it is also the chair who sent the letter of insubordination; with backup from HR, I suppose. I think the chair just followed this university’s policy on how to handle such a conflict.
The way I see it, the professor was at fault for refusing to meet up with the chair to discuss the letter he’d written (I already posted about the importance of discussing such things face to face). Moreover, I do agree with the chair that the tone of the professor’s emails was hostile and defensive (did you read the excerpts he himself posted?). Personally, I don’t think this is the proper way to respond to someone who wants to talk about a problem, regardless of whether they’re your chair or your student.
So my takeaway from this is not that the professor wasn’t allowed to say what’s on his mind. In fact, he was asked to do so repeatedly, but refused, and instead became defensive and hostile.Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Bianca
2 years ago

I really do sympathize with where you’re coming from, and yes, given the norms of academic bureaucracy all of this makes sense. these sorts of expectations are commonplace in 2019. if you’re aiming to be successful at a university, a lot of this is probably a matter of course for you now.

but try to think about the reasons people go into philosophy in the first place. this is so much policy and procedure over… a letter. it’s so weird that so much institutional machinery is involved in something so mundane; it’s weird that there is a conflict policy about this that a chair has to follow in the first place. from the outside, this reads like the same category of thing as when a university administration sends out a campus-wide email about an offensive poster, launches an investigation through some kind of committee, and reminds students that counseling services exist. a lot of university jobs aren’t even the sort of thing an everyday person can imagine existing — not in a “I didn’t think of that” way, but in a “why does this role need to exist” way. this scenario reads like a lot of jobs, and a lot of machinery, and most importantly a lot of money — over relatively trivial matters, as if very important and very educated people have nothing better to do.

from the perspective of someone who looks at philosophy and says “this is a field where nothing is taboo to dispute, where truthtellers congregate and where I’m going to bring up hard questions — if not the hardest questions”, this scenario reminds me less of that and more what I’d expect from a severely strained corporate environment. which is fine, if this is what the occupation demands. but when most people think “philosopher”, and what philosophers do, an environment where this much bustle exists over a creepy letter isn’t exactly that. it’s hard not to think “if I or anyone else wants to be around truthtellers for a living, perhaps we should just do standup comedy or something far less procedural.”Report

OP
OP
2 years ago

David Mamet has written a play Oleanna (1992) about a somewhat similar situation – a professor believes he’s well-meaning and just being clever whereas the student thinks (rightly) that the approaches are exploitative despite his “intentions”. Not really trying to weigh in on the situation but it might be interesting to re-read/-watch in relation to this.Report

Chris Surprenant
2 years ago

Answer to Q1: If you receive a letter that looks to be written by someone who is unhinged, you throw it away.

Why do we make these things so difficult? Surely all of us has seen letters, referee reviews, etc., that are just out there. Journal editors should pitch those reviews, search committees should pitch the letters, etc. Our profession draws more than its fair share of crazies.

Now, the interesting question to me is: You’re on a search committee and you see a batshit crazy letter come in. Do you have an obligation to reach out to the student to tell him/her that one of the letters should be removed from his/her file?Report

Johanna Thoma
Johanna Thoma
2 years ago

Why are people so sure that this letter harmed the student? It is so transparently misogynist and creepy, in my eyes it reflects badly only on the letter writer, and in no way on the student. If anything, it would make me more disposed to accept, to give the student the chance to study in a more positive environment. In terms of harm to the student (in applications), I am more worried about the subtly misogynist ones, but of course those are precisely the ones it is much harder to police. But I tend to put very little weight on letters anyway, so maybe I just don’t quite understand their role in admissions to US and Canadian PhD programmes.Report

Milan Ney
Milan Ney
Reply to  Johanna Thoma
2 years ago

You’re probably right that the letter doesn’t directly reflect negatively on the student in the eyes of any reasonably reader. However, assuming that this was one of the three letters the student summitted, at the very least she loses out an having one more good letter. An admissions committee will likely prefer a candidate with three very good letters to a candidate with two very good letters and one uninformative one.
Also, many people operate on a more-or-less conscious policy of avoiding weirdness. This is quite un-admirable, but might unfortunately be prudent. Being around weird people or events often causes more trouble than being around ordinary events. So, if two candidates have the same apparent qualifications, but one’s application seems somehow weird, an admissions committee will probably choose the other one. With often more then 200 people applying for one slot in a PhD programme, such small things can easily make a difference.Report

Fiona
Fiona
Reply to  Johanna Thoma
2 years ago

In your eyes it reflect badly on the letter writer and not at all on the student. But that’s not the way everyone will read it. There are plenty of people who would see a letter as signalling an inappropriate relationship towards a student and will blame the student just as much – or even more- than the professor.Report

Johanna Thoma
Johanna Thoma
Reply to  Fiona
2 years ago

Yes, on reflection this makes a lot of sense. But wow is it sad. This field is just so hard to navigate as a young woman.

Maybe just to reiterate what I think others have been quite clear about: Saying this is transparently misogynist is not speculating about the letter writer’s intentions. Who knows what he was intending, but the letter is misogynist. The fragments provided portray the student as a passive sponge of knowledge and men’s fantasies, simple and pure, there to judge and appreciate the academy, not to participate in it, and as an incarnation of some abstract perfect woman-figure rather than a person in her own right. It’s an age-old trope. Just read ‘I am Charlotte Simmons’ if you are in any doubt about the fantasy bit. And consider the fact that many women here have strong reactions to the letter. The letter seems clearly addressed at hetero men.Report

Rebecca Kukla
Rebecca Kukla
2 years ago

Justin, why do you find it obvious that the letter writer is “well meaning”? This seems to me a really problematic, himpathetic (to appropriate Kate Manne’s language) description. First, we have no idea what was going on in his head and probably neither does he so why attribute intentions to him? Second, the letter was misogynist and narcissistic. We normalize misogynistic behavior and speech by calling it ‘well meaning.’ Your use of this phrase seems to ask us to read this episode as something that happened to a ‘nice guy’ who bumbled things. This is not a nice guy. Misogynist creeps are not nice guys.Report

Rebecca Kukla
Rebecca Kukla
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
2 years ago

Yeah I got that. I think you are missing my point. We don’t really know what he intended with the letter. I agree that it seems unlikely he wanted to hurt the student but he did in at least some sense intend to spread a misogynist message. The pragmatic and rhetorical force of opening with ‘well meaning’ is to frame him as a nice guy, whether or not you’re just semantically referring to the letter, and it’s unjustified because (1) we don’t really know what he meant by it, since we are not in his head and (2) there are all sorts of things meant by the letter other than just the narrow one of helping the student and many of these don’t seem to be ‘well’ at all.Report

AL
AL
Reply to  Rebecca Kukla
2 years ago

“We don’t know anything, why would you attribute intentions to him?” – says Prof. Kukla, while attributing a different sort of intention to him. Amazing.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  AL
2 years ago

She does not attribute any intention to the letter-writer. She says “the letter was misogynist and narcissistic” – but those are features that the letter itself has regardless of the intention the writer had while writing it. She also says “he did in at least some sense intend to spread a misogynist message”, which sounds a bit more psychologistic – but I read her as saying that he intended to write the letter (which seems clear from the whole description of the story) and the letter has a misogynist message (which he may or may not have intended, but it definitely does).Report

Rebecca Kukla
Rebecca Kukla
2 years ago

A totally separate point: I think Bali has also committed a separate ethical violation by going public with all of this. I can’t imagine there are many female philosophy majors who graduated from Ryerson a few years ago, did an MA, works on continental philosophy, and is now going to do a PhD. it is not hard to track down who this is from what we’ve been given, I’d expect. This is what my legal-privacy-professional boyfriend calls PII, or personally identifying information. It was not his place to spread it around.Report

AL
AL
Reply to  Rebecca Kukla
2 years ago

He claims to have obtained the student’s permission.Report

Rebecca Kukla
Rebecca Kukla
Reply to  AL
2 years ago

Yeah I forgot that part, fair. However, if so, I think the student should have thought more about how identifiable she is from this. She might also not be far along enough in the field to know how fucking creepy this field is and how much it can hurt her to have people associating her with a sexualized-sounding sordid story like this. It shouldn’t have been shared and she shouldn’t have been asked.Report

AL
AL
Reply to  Rebecca Kukla
2 years ago

It’s true that the publication of the story has caused many people to speculate about her life and her relationship with her professor (including many people on this thread). So perhaps wasn’t the wisest practical move. But on principle she hasn’t done anything wrong and it’s on speculators to stop making assumptions about her.Report

AL
AL
Reply to  Rebecca Kukla
2 years ago

Plus, one can knowingly put their reputation on the line for moral reasons, such as that she thought it was important to let her professor defend himself. But I wouldn’t go into it further, as I don’t know these people and don’t want to assume their motivations. This is just a possibility.Report

Ex-adjunct
Ex-adjunct
2 years ago

I would have thought it was obvious that the content of the letter is immaterial. He didn’t get fired because of the content of the letter. He got fired because he took umbrage with, and persistently resisted, sometimes intemperately, the process by which the complaint was handled. The content of the letter wasn’t even discussed during this process. Maybe his umbrage was misguided; maybe he should have simply acquiesced to the process. But the focus here on the content of the letter, which has prompted some to attribute foul motives to Bali, is just awful.Report

AM
AM
Reply to  Ex-adjunct
2 years ago

For those who sincerely do not understand how the letter could be read without seeing “foul motives” in it, imagine receiving a recommendation letter like this from someone like Alejandro Jodorowsky. I think many people would treasure such a letter. I apologize to Justin for this brief speculation on Dr. Bali’s intent and character, but I think this is key to the interaction between him and the university.

I am suggesting that the letter implies a sort of therapeutic or mystical program behind Dr. Bali’s teaching style, and he seems aware that this puts him at odds with standard university procedure. He also seems to be part of a network, centered around the Against Professional Philosophy site, that questions such standard procedure. Keeping all this in mind, I do not see why he objected to academic process so severely. Was he not prepared to defend the validity of his method?

I think the contrast of “coercive moralism” against “emancipatory non-conformism” in Against Professional Philosophy’s response article (linked by Tim O’Keefe) is at least worth entertaining. I think we can all agree that one of the troubles of the modern academy is that it may recede into “coercive moralism” when administrators fear that a teaching style might create problems. However, the aspiration to “emancipatory non-conformism” on the part of the Against Professional Philosophy site requires an honest defense against charges that it is “grooming” or cult-like. It should not be afraid to explore the teacher-student power dynamic and discuss how to prevent favoritism and exploitation of students.

Awareness of this power dynamic is spreading among both students and administrators throughout the English speaking world. A beloved high school teacher of mine, who had been teaching for decades, was recently fired under circumstances extremely similar to this story. How can such situations be prevented? Teachers, who have the power and the responsibility, should be aware of the dangers contained within “emancipatory non-conformism” and equip themselves to avoid them.

Perhaps the administration would have felt more confident in keeping Dr. Bali on staff if Dr. Bali himself felt confident that his method was an acceptable way to teach his profession and that he could engage in the administrative process without fear. Perhaps this would have required some modifications to his method, but hopefully not in a way that compromised his natural talent or dignity.Report

More optimistic
More optimistic
Reply to  AM
2 years ago

The letter seems to have been written by a kook. At least, I would have read it that way. The only slight thing I would have inferred about the student after reading it was that she thought that whatever this guy was doing was actual philosophy. If her other letters were more promising, I would put more weight on what they said and assume that she might have a good sense of how to do philosophy but might have an unfortunately broad idea of its subject matter because of this instructor. But students can outgrow these things, so I would not be inclined to hold it too much against her.

I’m not sure why it would be a good thing for such a letter to be pulled. It sounds as though she knew the sort of thing he would write, and chose for him to send it anyway. She is an adult, presumably, and can make her own choices on these matters, though the fact that she is just now coming out of an undergraduate program should be taken into consideration. I can see that the chair of the department might be motivated to conceal the true nature of one of their professor’s approaches to teaching. But why should others pressure the department to conceal those facts?

Some people above have said that they see ‘misogyny’ in the letter. Where? Nobody will say how the inference was drawn. The letter is wacky and provides tea leaves in which those who seek may easily find what they are looking for. But one doesn’t need to provide any inference to the conclusion that the author secretly hates women to freak out a department chair. And once the declaration has been made that the letter is misogynistic, few will dare to question the charge. That seems to be what happened here. If it isn’t, I invite anyone to show us the line of reasoning from the letter to the verdict of misogyny.Report

Martine
Martine
2 years ago

The confidentiality of an admissions committee requires a member to discuss any part of a candidate’s file only with other members of the committee or, at most, with whoever wrote that part of the file. Professor X seriously breached confidentiality in discussing part of Karen’s file, in particular Bali’s letter of recommendation, with Bali’s chair.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Martine
2 years ago

This is the sort of response that worries me! I have seen a couple occasions on which one letter in a file is clearly hurting the student, and have avoided contacting the writer or their colleagues because of the reasons you mention. But at the same time, this seems like I’m perpetuating some sort of harm against the student, and I’m not sure I understand the norm of confidentiality around applications enough to know when it should or shouldn’t be maintained.

On plenty of occasions I will mention to a colleague at another university that someone applied to our program and seemed interesting, and might be better suited to their program than ours, or will talk to a letter writer about how helpful their letter was. Are these violations of the same sort?Report

KikiC
KikiC
2 years ago

There are also intense and problematic power dynamics between chairs and professors, administrations and departments, those with tenure versus those without. There are, of course, problematic power dynamics between professors and students, but that is not the only power dynamic involved here that is relevant to analyse, discuss, and attempt to increase understanding around. An untenured professor whose job is reliant on renewal every semester or year, would in all likelihood be in a position of relative lack of power to defend teaching style, when called upon by chair. I can understand how a nameless and vague complaint would put a professor in this position on the defensive, and perhaps spark a bit of moral outrage on the part of the professor. I do think the character attacks on Bali are out of line – we never get to greater understanding of all the issues from multiple perspectives when such attacks are underway and ongoing. The moderation on this thread is excellent on the point of unhelpful character attack.Report

grixit
grixit
2 years ago

It seems to me that the root of the situation is not the letter itself but the lack of feedback to Bali. He was informed that there was apparently a problem with what he wrote but was not given any details. I was never a teacher of any sort, but as a student, such things always came with notes and red marks on the writing itself to show what said problems actually were. Is it so different at that level? If i had been in Bali’s place, i’m pretty sure i wouldn’t have been as stubborn (or brave if you will) as he, but i’d certainly have been as rankled. Whatever he supposedly did wrong could not possibly be as bad as X not saying what that was and his chair going along with it.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  grixit
2 years ago

I’m not sure that sending someone a brief note saying “your letter was weird, you should probably try to fix it” is anywhere near as bad as writing such a weird letter in the first place for a student who wants to get into graduate programs. And if this was the problem, why didn’t he just ask for more thorough feedback?Report

Junior faculty member
Junior faculty member
2 years ago

I hope I’m not too late to weigh in on this. Here are some thoughts:

1. My first reaction was to agree with Johanna Thoma above: surely the letter of recommendation reflects badly on its writer, rather than on the student. One weird thing about the response of the admissions committee member who wrote to Bali is that she says that the letter is especially problematic in light of the fact that the *other* letters of recommendation say that the student is promising. That implicates that this letter doesn’t portray the student as promising. But that is false. The letter, as least from the excerpts we’ve seen, does portray the student as promising, outstanding even. The problem isn’t that it underrates the student’s abilities, but that it conveys a *positive* view of the student’s abilities in an incredibly creepy way.

2. I accept Milan Ney’s point, in response to Johanna, that some people on admissions committees might, despite the above, irrationally downgrade their assessment of the student as a result of this letter. If so, that’s a colossal error on their part, which should fall squarely on their shoulders and for which they should be blamed. I have been on graduate admissions committees multiple times, and if I received a letter like this I would completely disregard it and evaluate the letters part of the application solely on the basis of the other letters – which, if the other letters were very positive, would mean evaluating it very positively. Anyone else should do the same; I don’t think there’s much room for reasonable disagreement on that point. Incidentally, there are lots of other letters that I pretty much disregard for one reason or another, such as letters from people I know to systematically overrate or underrate their students (or certain kinds of students), or to write brief, form assessments that are largely cut and paste jobs. This should be treated the same way.

3. Given the two points above, the question about Bali’s own culpability shouldn’t hinge on the idea that his letter was inappropriately negative about the student, but rather on his creepy attitude toward the student. I think the letter is certainly sufficient grounds for looking into that further. As I see it the letter on its own doesn’t constitute adequate grounds for dismissal, but it is certainly evidence that there could be more there in this professor’s relationship and interaction with the student that would constitute such grounds. That would have to be investigated to reach any kind of clear judgment.

4. As I’ve said, it seems to me that the problem with this particular letter is not that the letter is *negative* about the student. But there is a separate question about whether letters that *are* negative are inappropriate or impermissible to write. I agree with the banality that if you have literally nothing good to say about a candidate, you should just decline to write for them. But I do strongly believe that it should be permissible for letter-writers to raise significant doubts about a student (and not just “minor” ones) in letters, at least if they’ve been up front with the student that their letter won’t be 100% positive. Letters are supposed to be helpful to admissions committees, and the norm that letter-writers shouldn’t be able to express significant doubts really degrades the helpfulness of letters when they do engage in effusive praise. I find it very helpful when I receive letters that make it clear that a student is good but not amazing. I find it equally helpful when I receive letters that convey a nuanced picture of a student – that they’re really outstanding in certain regards but that there are other regards in which they need to substantially improve, or in which there are some causes for concern about their suitability for a PhD program. (Of course, if the reasons for the latter concern something confidential, e.g. mental health difficulties, you need the student’s permission.)

The latter case, where the student is strong in some ways but not others, is especially helpful because, knowing your own program, it can help you figure out whether they’d be a good fit *for your program in particular*, given what you know about how effective it is in helping students to get past the particular challenges that the student is facing. And it can even be more helpful to the student in the long-run, in guiding them toward a program that will suit them well. For example, suppose a student is exceedingly talented but has trouble meeting deadlines, or working self-sufficiently and structuring their own time. If you’re at a program which provides the kind of support that shepherds students through its processes, you may well want to admit the student, since it’s an opportunity to get a terrific student that others may pass over, and you think your program will provide a good environment to keep the student on track. If, on the other hand, you’re at a program that is pretty hands off and leaves students to their own devices (maybe because of the supervising style of your colleagues, not yourself), you may think that your institution just isn’t the right fit for that student.

Relatedly, one thing that’s really frustrating is when a letter-writer, in trying to explain away some blips on a student’s record, confidently pronounces that the student’s troubles are clearly behind them, and when the student arrives it becomes clear that this isn’t the case. I think you’re in a better position, as a letter-writer, to help a student not just get admitted to a program but actually *succeed* in it if you’re honest and make admitting programs aware of the kind of support the student needs to thrive.

To reiterate, I don’t think this case is of this kind. But it speaks to the separate issue of when it’s OK to be “negative” in letter-writing that some have raised (erroneously, in my view) with respect to this case.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Junior faculty member
2 years ago

“some people on admissions committees might, despite the above, irrationally downgrade their assessment of the student as a result of this letter. … if I received a letter like this I would completely disregard it and evaluate the letters part of the application solely on the basis of the other letters – which, if the other letters were very positive, would mean evaluating it very positively.”

The problem is that often two positive letters are not sufficient to judge a candidate highly enough to admit them to a graduate program. There are a very limited number of slots and a lot of applicants. Sometimes one positive letter is clear and detailed and positive enough that I can use it to mark a candidate as presumptively acceptable, assuming the other two don’t do anything negative. But in other cases, there are letters that say “this is the best student I’ve worked with in several years – they did well in all my classes and I think they’ll do well in grad school”. That’s a relatively positive letter, but it’s not detailed or useful enough to make it clear that this is someone we take a chance on with one of our very few slots (especially if we don’t know anything about the comparison class of students this professor has evaluated).

Despite all the dozens of pages in any typical application, we still have very little actual information to go on. Losing out on one letter slot often means not having enough information to clear the hurdle that other candidates can. This isn’t only about irrationally downgrading one’s assessment – sometimes it’s just about rationally not upgrading it enough to admit the person.Report

Junior faculty member
Junior faculty member
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
2 years ago

I don’t get the problem. The responsible way to proceed is to assess the average quality of the letters that you receive, excluding any letters that are for one reason or another unusable – not to count up the number of positive things said across all letters. This is needed to exclude weird letters like this one, but also letters from those you know to be bad at evaluating students, unsubmitted letters, etc. It’s also necessary to deal with the fact that some candidates submit three letters of rec and others submit five, but for various reasons you might not want to disadvantage those who submit three. Just thinking in terms of the average quality isn’t rocket science. Obviously if you have to exclude a third letter that means the candidate misses out on the opportunity to increase the average quality of their letters, but unless you have some reason to think the third would have exceeded the first two in average quality, there’s no reason to expect this to disadvantage a candidate when you’re using the average quality method.Report

Brian Weatherson
Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Junior faculty member
2 years ago

The average method has some obvious weaknesses. If I get one letter saying a student is already good enough to get hired at a top 20 school, I won’t give it much weight. If I get three saying the same thing, that counts for a lot.

That’s an outlier obviously. But in this game you’re looking for outliers. Anything strong enough to be useful will be strong enough that it could use corroboration.Report