Saturday, February 2, 2008

Recommending students do what they shouldn't do

Is it ever ethically defensible for an instructor to decline a student's request to write a letter of recommendation? I don't have in mind two common situations where it's probably defensible to decline because you'd write a 'bad' letter: either you don't know the student well enough to write a credible or well-informed letter, or you know the student too well and the only letter you could honestly write would be sufficiently negative that it would hurt the student's chances. I have in mind situations where you might decline for paternalistic reasons.

Let me describe two such situations I recently faced:
  1. A student asked me to write a letter of recommendation so that she could transfer to a local private college. She is an above average but not great student, so I'd put her chances of admission at 50-50. But I have very little respect for the college she's considering and would not recommend students attend there: Its reputation is as a playground for bored, well-to-do southern California kids; its faculty is rather undistinguished; and it costs five times as much as the public university where I teach. The student is under the impression that a degree from this college will prove more prestigious or lucrative.
  2. A talented student who had long been considering graduate study in philosophy or religious studies unexpectedly asked me to write a letter in support of applications to law school. This student has a very scholarly demeanor and would probably have a rewarding academic career. It emerged in conversation that his parents don't support his pursuing the academic path and are pushing him toward a legal career. I honestly believe that he'd be unhappy as a lawyer and that path would be time and money ill used.

In both cases, I ended up writing the letters but wonder if it's permissible for me to say no: My reasons are obviously paternalistic. I ought to promote my students' well-being and respect their autonomous choices (though in situation 2, those choices aren't so obviously autonomous) so long as those choices do not themselves involve or support unethical conduct. But in writing students these letters I'm more than not interfering with those choices; I'm actually promoting the ends they have chosen. And am I obligated to do so even when, in my considered professional judgment, those ends are not the best ends for them to pursue? I think of letter writing as part of an imperfect duty of beneficence, but isn't that duty best fulfilled by my assisting students in ways that will actually prove beneficial to them? Certain analogous situations come to mind: I've dissuaded students from becoming philosophy majors on paternalistic grounds and I've refused to admit students to my overenrolled courses because the course would simply be too difficult for them. I feel fairly confident that those are justified instances of paternalism. Does declining to write recommendation letters in these situations fall into a similar ethical category?


  1. I think that the situations are different because the students requesting recomendations have earned a good recommendation from you.

    If you decline to write them a recommendation for something they, as adults, are deciding to do, you are witholding confirmation of their good work.... but, it was THEIR good work.

  2. I think "inside" is right. Your obligation is to tell them the truth about your take on their decisions and to write the letter if they still decide to follow through. The recommendation should simply be a description of their own good work. I'm not sure it's up to the recommender when that should be used.

    It makes me think of graduate professors (I've heard of through the rumor mill) who refuse to write letters for job applicants when they think that the job they applying for is beneath them.

  3. I'm with the two previous posters. I would express my opinion as much as I could to the person asking, but ultimately I would write the letter of recommendation. The dilemma is fresh in my mind because I recently had a student who wanted a recommendation for the Marine Corps' officers training program. The student was an excellent philosophy student and also at the top of his game in math and the sciences. After much discussion, I wrote him what I thought was a very good letter for the Corps. I even said in the letter that while I would prefer the student study philosophy, this was my personal bias and for that reason he was probably one of the best candidates they'd ever have.

    On one hand it breaks my heart that he's not going to be pursuing an academic path while he's got such a good command of everything he's learned in college. On the other hand this is something that he's worked very hard for, making considerable sacrifices throughout his life. He's anything but brainwashed and if the military had more people like him maybe it wouldn't have some of the backwards thinking that it has today.

    We're always saying how useful philosophy is to anyone in any major. The more philosophy grads with real skills that get out into other careers, the more we can show that.

    All that said, I can see two exceptions. If the student really is being coerced into some career by someone else and not having the rec would be what the student wanted, I could see playing along. Second, if the organization is completely morally objectionable to you, it might be a good reason to explain in more detail to the student why you wouldn't be able to recommend him or her. (I don't think a student could realistically expect a strong letter from a pacifist professor to the military, for instance. Normally writing a letter involves the perspective that the recommender wants (or at least doesn't mind) the best for the organization. I wouldn't expect Peter Singer to write me a good reference for butchery school.)

    But other than those exceptions, I do tend to think withholding a recommendation isn't a good way of influencing a student's life choices.

  4. I would agree with what has been said in the other comments: you have the responsibility to write a letter of recommendation, no matter what you would like them to do - it's their choice after all. But, if you honestly think it's the wrong decision you equally have the responsibility to tell them that, maybe even talking to the parents in the second case. If they still want to do it even with the information you can provide then that's up to them - there's always the chance that your own opinion could be incorrect.

  5. The recommendation should probably go two ways: you recommend a student to a school and you recommend a school (and eventual career) to a student. That's what I look for in a good letter-writer. If the student is set on applying, then you may as well write it since you've done as much to suggest alternates. But you needn't think writing a letter under that circumstance is ethically good; it's just compensatory.

  6. A relevant issue (and this would tend toward the same conclusion as the other commenters) is that in many cases the student has a narrow range of possible recommenders. If you refuse for paternalistic reasons, the student may not have other equally knowledgeable professors to approach for a letter. This doesn't mean that you can never refuse for paternalistic reasons to write a recommendation letter, but it does imply, I believe, that there are fewer cases where you can justifiably do so. (E.g., the student wants a recommendation for KKK membership, to select a bizarre and unrealistic example.)

  7. Thanks for the suggestions everyone. In the end, I followed the consensus you've expressed and wrote the letters, though I did so unhappily. And following Adam, I do think my second student is very nearly coerced. And as several of you mentioned, maybe it's not an either/or but a both/and situation, where I ought to speak to the students about my reservations and write the letter anyway. I do think there remains a larger set of issues here about permissible paternalism vis-a-vis students. Such paternalism is at least sometimes justified: what's distinctive about this kind of situation?

    And I'll have to work on the letters I've been writing for students to get into the KKK. They never seem to work. :>)

  8. The deeper issue here is what are our obligations w/r/t writing letters of recommendation in the first place. The default assumption in place for most of the commenters here is that we have a prima facie obligation to do so when asked, one that might be overridden by other considerations, such as whether or not you could write a helpful letter or, in this case, perhaps on paternalistic grounds. I'm wondering if this is the right approach, however. Perhaps there just is no such prima facie obligation in the first place, in which case good reasons must be given to justify writing any letters at all. If so, then it's unclear a good enough case has been made by the students in question for writing the letters (where your refusal would then not necessarily be on paternalistic grounds: they just didn't meet the threshold standards necessary for creating an obligation for you to write a letter in the first place). Such a stance would require specifying the relevant threshold standards, but I'm sure we have some rough understanding of what those are.

  9. David,

    That's an interesting twist on it, but I'm not sure the burden of proof here is on those who suggest that there is such a prima facie committment. So why do you suspect that there might not be?

    I do find the KKK example interesting, though. Thinking about it, however, I would think that writing someone a recommendation that stressed their strong capacity for insightful and sophisticated analytic reasoning (which is mostly what I'd be saying in a recommendation) might assure that they _don't_ get into the KKK!


  10. Chris: As they say about driving, getting a letter from a professor would be a privilege, not a right. I don't yet see why it's part of a professorial *obligation* to write a letter for anyone, even anyone who meets a certain minimal threshhold of good studenting. So take the role of professorship to be about contributing to student learning (both content and cognitive skills), as well as a certain degree of intellectual mentoring and advice (with respect to the discipline of his/her expertise). If so, how does writing a letter fall under the list of corresponding *obligations*, rather than it being supererogatory? Don't get me wrong: I'm all for supererogatory actions (who isn't?), but if writing letters is viewed in that light, the question of paternalism doesn't strike me as relevant.

  11. David,

    Clearly a recommendation is not contractual obligation. But I don't think it's supererogatory either. It seems to be a professional obligation, if the student meets fill in the blank (academic) threshold requirements.

    I think of my job as to teach, and to pass along info, but it’s also to assess. Recommendations strike me as a pretty typical form of assessment that is typically expected of the graduating student's abilities (by jobs/grad schools, etc). To refuse to provide it due to paternalism seems to have little to do with assessment of student work, so professionally I'm unsure what the grounds for refusing would be, other than "don't feel like it".

    I suppose I’d go so far as to say that writing them is indeed a part of my job (even if non- contractually so), so if the student meets the threshold, the student does indeed have a right to the recommendation.

    I'm curious what the feeling on this is, not just from David but all around.

  12. As was perhaps suggested in my post, I kind of want to split the difference between Chris and David here: There's a role-based obligation to assess students and write in favor (or against) them when they request it, but it's a defeasible obligation that can be overridden by various considerations: I don't have time, I don't know the student well enough, etc. So is 'the student is making an ill-advised choice' among those considerations? I'm still inclined to think it could be, but I'm not sure. As I mentioned before, there seem to me clearcut cases where paternalism vis-a-vis students is justified, so why not here?

    And is a 'recommendation' only a recommendation to the institution the student is applying to — or is a recommendation a recommendation that the student ought to go there?

  13. Michael,

    I'm not doubting that the role-specific obligation (I agree with you there) is defeasible, that's clearly true. As I noted -- there is a threshold requirement.

    You clearly have to know the student, and you have to think something positive about the student's work. That's generally accepted as built into the notion. If neither question can't be answered 'yes' then you don't have to write. "Didn't have the time," of course, is an answer that depends on the answer to "why's that?". It's not an acceptable answer if you've decided to catch up on the third season of "Lost" instead of writing.

    Paternalism just doesn't seem to do it either, because the dimension in which it's being applied has nothing to do with your role. Again, I'm reminded of graduate school advisors who won't write for you if you don't apply for a job at a school they find acceptable. At best this seems to be an abdication of their role-obligations.

    I'm actually glad that David pushed the question, because it's made me think about it -- I've never before thought of rec writing as anything other than a role responsibility.

  14. Chris, I guess I find the grad school advisor vs. undergrad letter writer comparison slightly off base. For one thing, grad students are definitely more adult than undergrads, so paternalism is less warranted with respect to the former. Second, I think many of us have the suspicion that a grad school advisor refusing to write on a candidate's behalf for a job at a specific school might have something to do with the advisor's ego or her concern for the reputation of her graduate program, neither of which are sufficient to override her role-based obligations to support the candidate's job search.

    And also: is it a condition of writing on a student's behalf that you can say something positive? After all, the forms I fill out always say something like 'faculty evaluation' rather than 'faculty recommendation'. Perhaps widespread acceptance of this norm has led to the widely observed recommendation inflation within our discipline. Maybe a student will get the picture if every faculty member she approaches for a recommendation declines, but that results in a pool students all of which only have positive recommendations. And if we only recommend students we can recommend positively, are we shirking our obligations to the institutions to which we recommend them?

  15. Michael,

    No analogy is perfect. But I think it's close enough. First, I don't think the difference between a 20 yr old and a 27 year old is that big to constitute a meaningful distinction here. Second, sometimes undergrad professors might be paternalistic for egoistic reasons as well, just as much as a grad professor might be paternalistic for purely -- to that person -- altruistic reasons.

    On your other point, clearly I won't argue about removing defeasibility conditions, since I'm arguing for the general obligation to start. But generally, I think it's an interesting question whether we also have an obligation to write a bad rec. As I usually take, it, the answer is "no". But here I take the obligation to be to the student, not to the place requiring the recs. When a student asks for a rec, the assumption is that the rec will be good. That's what I feel as if I have an obligation to clear up. If the rec will not be good, I say that to the students. If they insist (why would they?) I suppose I'd write it, but it would be bad. But I've never been in that situation, for obvious reasons!

    I also think that if recs were requested BY the institution, we would have the obligation you state to write the bad rec.

  16. By the way, lest I be taken wrongly, I do in fact think that there are a great number of obligations successfully defeated by the need to catch up on "Lost."


  17. Chris: Not to belabor the issue, but I do think part of our obligation here is to the institutions we recommend students for. I had some experience once with undergraduate admissions and I can remember thinking over and over again: "I'm seeing letters from the same high school teachers from the same high schools using the same language to praise students. This makes it impossible to make informed distinctions about the applicants. Indeed, it almost makes the letters themselves useless." And I concluded that in a certain sense these high school teachers had failed in their duty to the university: they (collectively) hadn't provided what we asked for.

    Students obviously cherrypick who writes for them in order to present the best possible credentials. But I can't see how, even if I am not doing a disservice to the institutions by refusing to write a negative letter for a student, that somehow we in the profession are failing those institutions. They want information useful for making admissions decisions. If all the recommendations out there are positive, we're not giving them useful information.

  18. Michael,

    Belabor away (that's what we're here for, I suppose!).

    I see your points, and I'm not strongly opposed to what you say. I suppose my concern is with what I take to be a prima facie understanding on the part of students (which I think is well grounded) that if a recommender agrees to write that it will be (at least to some fair degree) positive. If I don't think this will happen, I feel bound to say so and allow the student to retract the request.

    I acknowledge the obligation to the institution as well, but it's to tell the truth, it seems, not to agree to write in the first place. At the same time, if (say) grad departments, everytime they received an application, asked every member of the department to rate the applicant, I'd feel obligated to do so, regardless of whether the student wanted me to or not.

    It's an interesting situation, I'll grant you that.

  19. Chris: Perhaps it's students' "prima facie understanding" that needs to be addressed. To that end, I've occasionally thought of distributing to each student who seeks a recommendation a statement along these lines:

    "I'm glad you've asked me to write a letter on your behalf. Presumably you're asking me because you anticipate I will say positive things about you. In the vast majority of cases, that's true. However, I also have obligations to others that require me to be candid about your abilities and qualifications. This may demand that I say unflattering things about you. If you have reason to think that my recommendation won't be positive enough to meet your needs and goals, then it's probably best for you to look elsewhere for a recommendation. If not, then I'll do my best to represent your abilities and qualifications accurately and in a positive light."

    I don't know; it seems like full disclosure to me. And it shifts the issue to students, forcing them to reflect on whether their asking me is wise. And it helps the institutions since it at least allows for the possibility that some students will get negative recommendations.

  20. Michael,

    I think that's an excellent solution, one that I may start using myself. In such a case, I'd agree that you now take on even a larger set of obligations than the original set I began defending in this thread (now to the institution as well to provide a negative letter if the situation merits it).


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!