Three years ago, I finished my Ph.D. and began teaching both undergraduates and graduate students. Quite often a graduating student or a former student asks for a letter of recommendation, expecting that I will support his or her application for a job or for admission to a more advanced educational program. Sometimes it is easy, even pleasant, to comply, since the student is so gifted and accomplished that it would be hard to exaggerate his or her good qualities and attainments. Occasionally, too, a student is so poor that I simply refuse to write the letter. Of course, the student is likely to be irritated, but I explain, as gently as possible, that anything I could write with a good conscience probably would do him or her more harm than good.
Most cases fall in between. They try my conscience. I avoid outright lying, of course, though sometimes I am sorely tempted, especially when recommendation forms include questions suggesting that a criterion I consider inappropriate is being used to sort out applicants. But many people write recommendation letters filled with extravagant and unqualified praise, and language in this context has become debased, so that it is hard to know what constitutes lying. If I am too cautious, I might well spoil a good student’s chances by offering an entirely honest, accurate, and balanced evaluation pointing out weaknesses as well as strengths. It seems unjust for a good student to lose out because others writing on behalf of competing applicants are willing to be dishonest.
I am sure you have faced the same dilemma over the years. How do you think it should be dealt with?
This question calls for the derivation of norms for writing letters of recommendation. These are needed because in writing such letters professors have conflicting interests and responsibilities. The general norms of truthfulness and fairness are relevant, but they must be specified appropriately. To do this, the purposes of letters of recommendation and the relationships among the parties involved should be clarified. Someone asked to write a recommendation and unable to write favorably sometimes should write unfavorably. Even debased language retains some meaning and can be used to make truthful statements, but it often occasions further abuse, and those committed to speaking truthfully must resist the temptation. To ensure insofar as possible that honesty does not impose unfair hardships on those recommended, one must communicate as effectively as one can whatever favors a candidate.
As a basis for answering your question, one must consider the complex relationships among the various parties in the situation.
Professors and those to whom they write letters of recommendation are colleagues or collaborators in an established educational-economic system for whose good functioning they share responsibility. This good functioning, in which many people have important and legitimate interests, requires that opportunities for education and jobs be matched with applicants’ qualifications. So, in writing a letter of recommendation, a professor should try to help not only that particular applicant but those seeking the best-qualified applicant.
Educational institutions and professors also often benefit, even tangibly, by their students’ advancement to the jobs or further educational opportunities they desire. Programs that succeed in placing their graduates usually flourish, and flourishing programs usually provide more advantageous conditions of employment for administrators and faculty. Also, success in placing graduates tends to increase the influence and prestige of the institution and the professor. But there also are important intangible benefits; professors often take a personal interest in their students and sometimes develop a quasi-parental affection for them, so that their advancement gratifies the professors much as it does parents. With these and perhaps other motives, educational institutions and professors often make implicit, and sometimes explicit, promises to place their students well.
In these circumstances, professors who undertake to write letters of recommendation have a serious conflict of interests. As members of the wider system, they should provide all relevant information, favorable and unfavorable, to help decision makers identify the best qualified applicants; as members of a particular academic community with a commitment to place its students, they should help the students obtain what they are applying for—a responsibility reinforced by self-interest. This conflict of interests explains your dilemma and the debasement of language you mention.
A partial solution is to be completely honest with students. That requires not offering specious guarantees of placement or making insincere promises of support. But it requires more. A professor must be careful not to lead students to think he or she will help them obtain a job or other placement except by communicating truthfully about their qualifications.
Lowering students’ unreasonable expectations in this way would help, but it would not entirely solve the problem. A more adequate solution would be for employers and advanced educational programs to stop requiring applicants to obtain letters of recommendation from professors. Those who wished to support applicants still might do so, but it would be clear that their recommendations were promotional material extraneous to the completed application. The change would be no great loss, in my judgment, since these letters generally provide little useful information, and a great deal of time certainly would be saved by those who currently write them and read them.362
The conflict of interests I have mentioned should be obvious to everyone concerned. As matters now stand, those who require that students applying for jobs and admission to advanced educational programs supply letters of recommendation from professors cannot reasonably expect to get entirely disinterested and objective appraisals. But because the students, those to whom they apply, and competing applicants all stand to gain or lose a great deal, a professor writing a recommendation letter assumes a grave obligation to be just. The obligation can be specified by at least six norms, which those who require letters of recommendation and those asking to be recommended should be able to expect professors to follow.
First, professors should not support an individual’s application if they believe he or she probably will not succeed in the job or educational program. The individual will be better off in the long run doing something for which he or she is better fitted, and good will toward him or her should be enough to rule out giving a favorable recommendation. Reinforcing that motive is fairness toward more able competitors, who will be gravely wronged if the opportunity goes to someone not only less able but perhaps even incapable of taking advantage of it.
Second, though professors cannot help caring more for some students than others, they should not take their feelings toward a student into account in judging how strongly to recommend him or her. Doing that is as truly unfair as making affection the basis for grading students or giving them opportunities. Professors who are fair to all their students will at least be consistent in their recommendations, so that those who read them regularly will learn how to interpret them.
Third, sometimes a professor should write an unfavorable letter. Occasionally a poor student insists that a professor write a letter, and honesty requires that it be unfavorable. Such a letter need not point out the applicant’s poor qualities, but can make its point simply by stating facts while omitting customary expressions of praise or limiting them to the candidate’s few—and probably less relevant—good qualities. On rare occasions, a professor has negative information that will enable those considering the application to avoid very serious burdens. He or she then should apply the Golden Rule: If I were receiving the application, would I expect fair warning? And if I were a fair-minded student, would I acknowledge that sending the unfavorable letter was justified? If the answer is yes, the professor should communicate the information by writing the letter, unless there is another adequate and more appropriate way to communicate it.
Fourth, since lying always is wrong, it must be excluded absolutely. But one must bear in mind how what one says will be understood by those one addresses. It is not lying to use language that in other contexts would express a false proposition while reasonably expecting it to be understood by those addressed as expressing a true proposition. Thus, even debased language can be used to make both truthful and deceptive statements. Making truthful statements requires distinguishing between two kinds of expressions. Some—for example, “upper ten percent” and “my best ever”—have definite meanings, and one cannot reasonably expect them to be understood otherwise. Even though letters of recommendation may often abuse them, one should only use them if they correspond to the facts. Other expressions—“excellent,” “outstanding,” “one of our better students”—are vague; their abuse has given them special meanings in letters of recommendation. Still, readers can reasonably be expected to understand them at least to mean above average. A writer who says, “John Smith is excellent, outstanding, one of our better students,” lies if Smith is only marginal but could be telling the truth if he is at least above average.
It is understandable that someone confronted with a question suggesting that an inappropriate criterion is being used to sort out applicants should be tempted to lie. But a questioner’s possible or even certain unfairness does not justify lying. One may either ignore questions that seem unfair or, if it seems appropriate, explicitly refuse to answer and explain why. In any case, the applicant’s attention should be called to such signs of unfairness on the part of the organization, since they may point to more trouble further down the line.
Fifth, since few who write letters of recommendation are candid, a professor’s candor can seriously harm applicants he or she recommends. Rather than revealing all relevant information, one is justified in passing over things likely to put an applicant at a disadvantage. Therefore, since people reading recommendations generally are on the lookout for anything unfavorable, but few writers say anything of the sort, one should avoid suggesting anything unfavorable to the applicant unless fairness (as explained in the third norm, above) or truthfulness requires it.
Sixth, in the absence of a contrary agreement, rule, or customary practice, a professor generally should supply students with copies of letters written for them. If a letter is entirely favorable, the applicant can make the most of it; if not, he or she will have a chance to try to offset it. This norm is not exceptionless; applicants are not entitled to all the protections enjoyed by defendants in criminal trials, and occasionally it is fair to communicate unfavorable evidence confidentially—for example, to prevent retaliation. In such a case, of course, the professor must take special care to be clear and accurate, and not to assert anything unqualifiedly unless absolutely certain of it.
In my experience, certain techniques also help lighten the burden of writing recommendations conforming to the preceding norms.
A professor writing a favorable recommendation must gather all information that will be helpful to the applicant and communicate it as effectively as possible. For types of recommendations that recur regularly, one can make comprehensive check lists of relevant information. Those about whom letters are to be written can be required to supply the information, though it should be verified, if necessary, before the letter is written.
In making an evaluation, one can identify and focus on something both good and unusual about an applicant—for example, his or her effective handling of some handicap or obstacle. Without exaggerating, this calls favorable attention to the applicant. Besides evaluating an applicant’s personality, character, and attainments, one can provide helpful descriptive information: facts indicating his or her suitability for the opportunity. Favorable letters are likely to be more effective if they avoid obvious efforts at persuasion. Mentioning some irrelevant imperfection and/or admitting one’s personal friendliness toward an applicant can engender confidence in the recommendation.
Honest professors using such techniques greatly mitigate the damage their honesty otherwise might do to applicants they support. Eventually, those who are consistently conscientious probably will be recognized as trustworthy by regular readers of their letters, so that their recommendations will be far more influential than most others. But it should not be supposed that, pragmatically speaking, in the fallen human condition honesty always is the best policy. Sometimes, it will result in better-qualified applicants losing out to those whose dishonest supporters were believed. There may be no remedy in this world for such injustices, but in due course the Lord will rectify them, along with all others.
362. Carter Zeleznik et al., “Levels of Recommendation for Students and Academic Performance in Medical School,” Psychological Reports, 52 (1983): 851–58, report the result of a small study showing that the level of recommendation did not help predict performance in medical school. A much larger and broader study of this sort might help clarify the matter and end or greatly limit the practice of requiring letters of recommendation.