From the issue dated June 30, 2000

Why You Can't Trust Letters of Recommendation
Friends use puffery and foes carry out vendettas -- while everyone fears lawsuits
By ALISON SCHNEIDER

Need to write a recommendation for someone going on the academic job market? Trying to decipher an outside review in a tenure case? Here are a few helpful hints:

"Good" does not mean good. It means hopelessly mediocre. "Solid" is shorthand for plodding and unimaginative. And "flashes of brilliance" is a nice way of saying that the scholar in question suffers from long languors of incoherence punctuated by random insights.

ALSO SEE:

What Letters of Recommendation Say ... And What They Really Mean


As for letters that are full of heady praise, well, they're not exactly models of forthrightness, either.

Take this tale -- and it's not apocryphal. A dean at a research university came across a recommendation for a job applicant that included this closing line: "In over 20 years of university teaching, Dr. X is clearly the best young scholar I have encountered." There was just one hitch: That's exactly how the professor wrapped up his recommendation of another applicant for the same post.

In academe, some letters really are too good to be true. Puffery is rampant. Evasion abounds. Deliberate obfuscation is the rule of the day.

What do you expect, scholars ask, when a mild criticism or an off-the-cuff adjective can crush a career -- the letter writer's included? Lawsuits, reprisals, frayed relations with colleagues: There are good reasons, professors insist, why grades are not the only things inflated in academe.

What can't be inflated is the critical role letters play in higher education. They can derail a tenure bid, clinch a job, tip the scales for that Guggenheim grant. Sure, they're padded with accolades and peppered with code. But there is a decipherable rhetoric to recommendations. Even the people who recognize the massive B.S. quotient -- even Timothy Lomperis, chairman of the political-science department at Saint Louis University -- won't deny that "letters are really important."

They pretty much doomed his bid for tenure eight years ago at Duke University.

An endorsement by a traditionalist in political science was shot down by members of the rational-choice crowd at Duke, who don't much care for Mr. Lomperis's work, he says. And when a key player in the discipline declined to write at all, citing illness, "that was really held against me."

Members of the department don't deny that the letters played a crucial in the tenure decision, but insist that nothing nefarious was going on. Mr. Lomperis didn't get tenure because too many outside reviewers questioned his scholarly significance, department members said at the time.

But Mr. Lomperis thinks otherwise. "People try to get letters to stack up in one direction or another," he says, and those letters are not used to genuinely explore a candidate's merit. "They're used to solidify positions already held."

That's been a complaint for years, and grounds for more than one grievance. Last year, Cecelia Lynch filed a complaint against Northwestern University with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Northwestern's president personally solicited letters to torpedo her tenure bid, seeking comment from scholars he knew were hostile to the candidate's intellectual leanings, Ms. Lynch said. Northwestern has denied wrongdoing.

In 1997, the historian Karen Sawislak filed a sex-bias complaint against Stanford University. At issue: whether the dean had selectively read the letters in her tenure file, picking out the few mild criticisms as the basis for his negative decision while discounting the pages of glowing praise. Stanford has defended its actions.

Then there are the institutions that bury the name of a job candidate in a long list of professors and ask letter writers to name their top pick. That approach is loaded with problems, says Kay Lehman Schlozman, a political scientist at Boston College. An institution can sandwich a candidate's name amid a list of more junior colleagues (if they want to hire the person) or more senior colleagues (if they want to sabotage the person). "It's very easy to influence the outcome," she argues, depending on whose names go on the list and who is asked to comment on it.

But even the people who acknowledge the problems with recommendations have not stopped using them. "Letters are subject to abuse and manipulation," says Mr. Lomperis, the Saint Louis chairman. "But I don't know how else to do business."

Neither does anybody else. Peer review -- one of academe's central enterprises and sacred cows -- may be flawed, but few academics can imagine hiring or tenuring without it. Everybody is busy peer reviewing everybody else -- for jobs, promotions, even measly summer stipends. And all those reviewers are engaged in a delicate dance -- mincing their words, monitoring their tone, making sure to balance someone's career against their own credibility.

It's a fine line to walk, and a lot of people have crossed it. Like the philosopher who writes every year or two in his recommendations: "Now I know what it's like to have Wittgenstein in my class." Or the philosophy department that annually calls its latest Ph.D. one of the best three students it's produced in the past five years.

Most academics take comfort in the notion that honesty comes on a sliding scale. "There's a continuum here in terms of candor," explains Richard R. Beeman, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. At one end of the spectrum, the more candid end, you find outside reviews for tenure, where the high stakes and external nature of the review process encourage at least a few hard calls. At the other lie the candy-coated letters for undergraduates. "When you're writing one of 50,000 letters to Harvard Law School, there's not too much conscience operating in terms of restraining hyperbole," Mr. Beeman says.

And then there are the letters for academic job candidates -- where beyond-the-pale praise meets between-the-lines truth.

"People want their students to succeed. They want their departments to succeed," says Brian Leiter, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. Reputations -- of professors and programs -- are riding on those placement numbers, not to mention the prospects of a newly minted Ph.D. "It becomes like a nuclear-arms race. If Michigan is using lots of adjectives, U.C.L.A. better, too. Someone who is candid risks damaging their students, because candor is uncommon."

Indeed. When it comes to recommendations for jobs, academe seems to have taken up permanent residence along the shores of Lake Wobegon. All of the applicants are above average -- way above.

"Over the last 20 years, inflation of recommendations has paralleled the inflation of grades," says Stuart Rojstaczer, an associate professor of hydrology at Duke University. "Someone to whom you might have given a good recommendation 20 years ago, you now say is very good. Very good is excellent, and excellent is outstanding. And if someone truly is outstanding," he says, his voice trailing off, "well, I don't know what you say."

He once made the mistake of pumping up the volume in a letter sent to a university in Britain, where hyperbole is not the norm. The student was excellent; he called her "outstanding." The next thing he knew, he was the one getting called -- by the search committee. They wanted to know if the letter had been forged. "It was so hyperbolic in their eyes that they couldn't believe it," Mr. Rojstaczer says.

Mr. Leiter, the Texas philosopher, explains: "An English philosopher might write, 'So-and-so has done very fine work.' If that were coming out of Harvard, it would mean this person barely has a three-digit I.Q. Coming out of Oxford, it could well mean this person is one of the top three people coming out of the U.K."

So what do American professors do when someone really is middle-of-the-road? Suggest that the person seek out a reference from someone else, of course. And when faculty members can't get a so-so student off their hands, well, there are polite ways of couching unpleasant truths.

"Writing a letter of recommendation for someone you want to promote is like putting makeup on," says Lennard J. Davis, head of the English department at Illinois-Chicago. "You have to accentuate what looks good and cover up the blemishes." It's an art form both in the writing and the reading. "You are entering the world of hermeneutics and interpretation."

Got a student who lacks focus and keeps overreaching? Call him "ambitious." Looking for a nice way to describe an antisocial colleague? "Keeps her own counsel" ought to do the trick.

Context, of course, is everything. A good letter says something about a candidate's research, teaching, personality, leadership potential, and impact on the field. If you really want to sell somebody, compare the person to other big names in the discipline. If not, keep mum. There's no need to slam someone's scholarship. Just focus the entire recommendation on their teaching. The review committee can do the math for themselves.

"I never speak ill of anybody," says Nell Irvin Painter, a historian at Princeton University. "There's a pretty clear list of things you need to cover. When you don't talk about something, that speaks volumes. This sounds terrible, but you can be unhelpful without badmouthing people."

It's called damning with faint praise. But the question remains: Why are tenured professors so reluctant to tell it like it is?

A story from Ms. Painter might shed some light. Back in the 1980's, a fellow historian meekly approached her at a conference, apology in hand. For five years, the woman had been calling Ms. Painter, one of the most prominent black female historians in the country, "antiblack and antifemale" because of a negative tenure letter that she'd heard Ms. Painter had written about a black woman. Years later, after dragging Ms. Painter's name through the mud, the other historian found out that the poison letter wasn't penned by Ms. Painter after all. Oops.

But Ms. Painter had learned a valuable lesson: "One reason for not speaking ill ofpeople is because it says something ill about you."

Maybe candor wouldn't be such a problem if confidentiality weren't such a question mark. Yes, academics pay lip service to the secrecy of the hiring-and-promotion process, but let's face it, professors say, a lot of those lips are loose.

"I've seen cases where people are candid, and they're harassed for it," says Marjorie Perloff, an English professor at Stanford University.

She is a case in point. Ms. Perloff once wrote a negative tenure evaluation for a professor at a large state university. As it turns out, the tenure candidate's husband worked in the same department as she did. "Before long, the husband called me up. He said, 'I don't think you really understood her book. You didn't realize X, Y, and Z. Are you sure you don't want to reconsider?' I was appalled."

Other people are, too. Philip Gossett, a professor of music and former dean of humanities at the University of Chicago, had his own bad experience with letters of recommendation. His beef: Systems that operate under open-records laws, like the University of California. Professors writing letters for colleagues in the California system are warned in advance that tenure candidates can read redacted copies of their evaluations. All that's left out is the letterhead, the signature, and any identifying information below the signature block. If the writer is careless enough to sprinkle identifying information in the body of the text, it's there for the candidate to read.

But even without telltale comments in an evaluation, a candidate can often figure out who wrote it. Academics work in finite communities. Everybody knows everybody else, not to mention everybody else's writing style and intellectual leanings.

One day, Mr. Gossett was writing a tenure endorsement for a California professor, ticking off the candidate's strengths and weaknesses. Not long after, the candidate buttonholed Mr. Gossett at a meeting "and proceeded to rake me over the coals for having said anything that wasn't 100-percent positive," the music professor recounts. "I was aghast that in what was not a contentious situation -- the tenure went through without difficulty -- my letter would become public knowledge. It seemed utterly gratuitous and ultimately dangerous to the system of peer review to put people in that kind of situation."

His response: to never write for the University of California system again.

Other people have found less radical solutions. "We had one person who put the entire letter under the signature block," says Kevin Hoover, chairman of the economics department on California's Davis campus. Mr. Hoover mailed it back.

Then there was the time a reviewer wrote a positive endorsement of a job candidate, only to scrawl beneath the signature block, "Not for U.C. Davis."

"He wanted the candidate to get a job," Mr. Hoover says, "but he didn't want to do us any damage." Or himself. The writer knew people in the economics department. "People do have reputations to protect."

That's not all they're protecting. Reputations are one thing; lawsuits are another. Suits against letter writers are almost unheard of, but fear of them is rampant.

To add fuel to those fears, there is a case pending at Radford University. L. Keith Larimore, a management professor, is suing four Radford colleagues for libel and defamation. He says they falsely accused him, in their written evaluations of his tenure bid, of inflating his publication record by fobbing off previously published findings on unsuspecting journals.

The defendants argued that their comments -- made in the course of their professional duties -- had absolute immunity. The Virginia Supreme Court disagreed. The defendants have only a qualified privilege, the court ruled in April. If Mr. Larimore proves that the comments are false and were made with malice, he'll win his suit. He is seeking $900,000 in damages.

Prior to the Virginia ruling, "it was unclear what protections participants in tenure cases had," says G. David Nixon, Mr. Larimore's lawyer. Many thought they could hide behind the notion of absolute immunity for employees performing their professional duties, he says. "This ruling almost wipes out that doctrine in the workplace. This opens the door tremendously in defamation cases. Now all you have to do to get into the courthouse is prove malice, and there are a million ways to do that."

Bruce Blaylock, a management professor at Radford and one of the defendants in the case, hopes not. He wouldn't comment on the specifics of the case, only on its implications, which he thinks are dark indeed: "If we lose, there will be substantial repercussions. Every university in the country had better be on their toes. They're saying you can't be forthright. You can't challenge a publication record."

A lot of people are hardly rushing to challenge publication records anyway. It's not just the specter of lawsuits that holds them back, or worries about reprisals. Something more complicated is at work -- sympathy, perhaps, or circumspection.

A tenured political scientist who asked not to be identified said he's read only one truly negative tenure letter during his career. "I believe that a lot of people who would write negative letters, just say no," he says.

"I'm not saying every letter I write is a cheerleading case," he adds. "But a denial of tenure is dramatically consequential. It may end someone's career. I would have to think long and hard before I would sit down and say, 'This person deserves to be fired.' I get lots of these requests. What's the best use of my time -- doing someone in, or writing a careful evaluation of someone's work that I respect?"

That depends on whom you ask. Ken Coates, dean of arts at the University of New Brunswick at Saint John, in Canada, wouldn't mind reading a few more letters that called a spade a spade.

He knows that people have good reason to fret about confidentiality. He has heard the horror stories, too, like the one about a historian who applied for a job at an institution with an open-records policy, even though he didn't want the job, just so he could see what his referees said about him.

And Mr. Coates knows the price people can pay for telling it like it is. Five years ago, he wrote a negative evaluation of someone up for promotion at another university. After reading the letter, the department head called Mr. Coates to tell him that the university had an open-records policy. He offered the dean a chance to rewrite the letter. Mr. Coates declined.

Several days later, Mr. Coates got a call from an ally of the candidate, questioning the dean's judgment, reminding him that the caller had written favorable reviews about Mr. Coates in the past, and baldly hinting that there would be payback.

Despite the ugliness, things would be a lot worse, Mr. Coates adds, if he opted out of difficult cases instead of stepping forward. "We have an obligation to the profession and to the institution. Not everyone is meant to have a tenure-track job or to be promoted." And someone has to have the guts to say so, with clarity and conviction, he declares. "The standard letter of reference essentially says, 'This person taught Jesus to walk on water.'"

Mr. Coates has had a few supernatural adjectives attached to him, too. He still recalls the letter one of his references wrote when he was applying to Ph.D. programs. He quotes: "'The work is of seminal importance. He's about to establish a new standard for historical research. He has enormous teaching potential.'" Then Mr. Coates does the exegesis: "I'd been in one seminar with this person. He'd never seen me teach. It was way over the top."

Letters like that can undermine academe, Mr. Coates says. "Finding the right match between a candidate and a university is a pivotal part of what we do. If we're not straightforward about a candidate, we have the potential to create very bad matches, and then no one ends up happy."

Professors have devised ways to put the paeans in perspective. They pick up the phone. The only way to get the full story is by calling up the person doing the recommending, they argue. Mr. Coates does it, and so do a lot of other deans. "People will be more frank in a telephone call," he says. "We've begun to use the letters as an opening gambit, not as a final word."

But phone calls cut both ways. Not long ago, Mr. Lomperis, the political-science chairman at Saint Louis University, had a dicey tenure case in his department. The candidate was an exceptional teacher, but the publication record wasn't strong. When it came time to pick an external reviewer, he called a friend at a top university and wasn't shy about letting the person know that he thought the candidate was outstanding. The professor won tenure.

"Chairs can and do -- I'll admit I have -- signal what they want," Mr. Lomperis says. "They're not supposed to, but I'd be surprised if well over half the chairs didn't tip their preferences to the reviewers."

The fix, more than a few professors say, is often in from the beginning.

Given all the conniving and code words and hyperbolic praise, it's no wonder that people like Victor Davis Hanson, a classics professor at California State University at Fresno, think "the whole genre has basically been discredited." He's so sick of the superlatives that he's just about given up reading the letters. He'll learn more watching a candidate teach a class or translate some Greek than by taking somebody else's word about what "the latest genius" on the job market can do, he says.

Departments should have the wherewithal to make up their own minds about whom to hire and tenure, based on a careful review of each candidate's record rather than a reliance on a flawed public-opinion poll, Mr. Hanson says.

But that strikes a lot of academics as a very bad idea -- even the ones who've been burned. "If we're not asked to make evaluations, then everything will happen behind closed doors," says Chicago's Mr. Gossett. "That's a much worse system."

Ms. Schlozman of Boston College agrees. Two years ago, she published an article in P.S.: Political Science and Politics documenting all kinds of problems with tenure recommendations in her field. Not only was the language over the top, she wrote, but so was the number of letters being requested. Nevertheless, she says, "I want to emphasize how seriously this responsibility is taken." Letters prevent inbreeding, she argues. They provide a counterweight to the old-boy network, help administrators unfamiliar with a specific field understand a candidate's place within it, and give credibility to a department's recommendation.

And for candidates, they ensure "that a secret group can't stab you in the back without you figuring out what's going on," says David F. Bell, a French professor at Duke. That's important, particularly for women and minority scholars, who want assurances that negative reviews are due to their work, not their sex or skin color.

Even hyperbole has its place, says Duke's Mr. Rojstaczer. You know there's something wrong with candidates if they can't dig up at least three people to wax eloquent about their achievements. "It's a checkoff on the list -- were they able to find three people willing to write hyberbolic letters? If not, they must be deficient."

Despite all the difficulties, more people are writing more letters for more kinds of positions than ever before. Robin D.G. Kelley, a historian at New York University, has a list of recommendees that's 500 names deep. Between August and February, he wrote 1,300 pages of letters, single-spaced. "It's killing a lot of us," he says.

For time-strapped reference writers, help is on the way. Robert J. Thornton, an economist at Lehigh University, came out with the second edition of L.I.A.R.: Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations (Almus Publications, 1998). The book contains hundreds of double-edged tributes to sidestep just about any sticky situation. The disagreeable-student situation: "I would put this student in a class by himself." The incompetent-candidate situation: "I recommend this man with no qualifications whatsoever." The substance-abuse situation: "He works with as much speed as he can."

Mr. Thornton says the lexicon has made him a much more efficient recommendation writer. Since it came out, hardly anyone has asked him to write any.


WHAT LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION SAY ...
... AND WHAT THEY REALLY MEAN
Hard-working, workmanlike, industrious, diligent, persistent. This person is not very original, but he sure tries hard.
Shy, low-key, keeps his own counsel. This person is socially dysfunctional.
I recommend this person ... without reservation, with enthusiasm, with my highest endorsement. Hire this person.
I recommend this person ... warmly, strongly, to any department with a job in her area. Do not hire this person.
Well-grounded. This scholar is hopelessly mired in bourgeois notions of proof.
This student is always willing to engage in vigorous debate. This student is really obnoxious.
Solid, competent, scoured the archives, good study habits. This student is a plodding dullard who will never produce anything of interest.
This person is an outstanding scholar (without any mention of teaching). This person is lousy in the classroom.
This person is an outstanding teacher (without any mention of research). This person is a lousy scholar.
Path-breaking, brilliant, first-rate, making fundamental contributions to the field. This scholar is at the top of her discipline.
This is a person of great promise, who is working on important issues. As a scholar, this person has not yet arrived.
Eclectic or synthetic scholarship. This academic is a flake.
At first, this student wasn't sure she wanted to be an English major, but in the last couple of months, her work has really flowered. This student has a lot of bad grades.
Independent thinker. This student is arrogant and wouldn't follow his adviser's recommendations. (Depending on the context, however, it can also mean imaginative.)
The acorn hasn't fallen far from the tree. This student's work is dreadfully derivative and adds nothing to what her dissertation adviser has already written.
Articulate. This person is a safe minority scholar who will not give you any trouble.
He will blossom with further mentoring. I have serious doubts that I will ever see this person publish an article, much less a book.
Smart. This person is clever but superficial. (Although, if said about someone in the humanities, it might mean that the person is well-dressed.)
When this student walks into class, the room lights up. We had long discussions after class. I am hopelessly in love with this student.
A note of caution: Interpreting letters of recommendation is a tricky business. A term like "hard-working" can be the kiss of death for a job candidate if the only other adjectives in the letter focus on effort. But if "hard-working" is sandwiched between long, gushing passages about keen intellect and boundless imagination, it can clinch the deal. Context is crucial.
SOURCE: Chronicle reporting

The Chronicle of Higher Education
June 30, 2000
Section: The Faculty
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