Here’s an ethical issue (actually, a pair of them) which I’m sure all of us have faced, or will. Sometimes students come to instructors seeking letters of recommendation – for graduate school, for jobs, for postdocs, or what have you. And sometimes these students are such that we could not, without dishonesty, write a fully positive and utterly enthusiastic letter. But there seems to be an expectation on the part of a lot of people – not only students who request these letters, but also those decision-makers who will read them – that every such letter should be completely positive, so that a letter that contains any negative comment at all will simply doom the person whom it ‘recommends.’
In light of this, there are three obvious strategies. (I’m sure there are more, but these seem to be the most obvious, and probably the most common.)
(1) Write utterly positive letters for everyone who asks, except for those who are so utterly inadequate that one feels unable to recommend them at all.
(2) Write letters only for those whom one sincerely believes to be utterly outstanding, and to have no flaws whatsoever – the top one percent, perhaps. For them, write utterly positive letters.
(3) Write honest letters, reflecting a candidate’s positive and negative qualities, for everyone who asks, except for those who are so utterly inadequate that one feels unable to recommend them at all. Begin the letter with something like the following (I borrow this from Steven M. Cahn’s book, Saints and Scamps: Ethics in Academia, p. 50): “This is a candid recommendation. As such, it necessarily contains criticism as well as praise. Please read it in the spirit in which it is written.”
My policy has generally been to follow (3). (1) is deplorably dishonest; as Cahn writes, “Just as counterfeit bills destroy monetary standards and cause disorder in the economic community, so phony recommendations wreck academic standards and lead to babel in the community of scholars.” As for (2), while it would mostly relieve one of the burden of having to write such letters, it would, if generally followed, leave many students unable to obtain recommendations at all; on the other hand, if followed only by a minority (as is likely to be the case), it would simply leave the field open to the majority who tend more toward (1).
However, I was recently criticized by a colleague who prefers (2). He claims that, against the current background in which thoroughly positive raves are de rigueur, what I take to be an honest evaluation is in fact not honest at all; since (he claims) to express any criticism in a letter of recommendation is to destroy the student’s chances, doing so is tantamount to stating that the student is not worthy of recommendation (whereas the students in this class are meant to be ones whom one regards as worthy of recommendation, but not perfect). Moreover, since many students will simply withdraw their request for the letter when informed of the policy, my colleague claims, (3) in practice tends to reduce to (2): one tends to end up writing letters only for those students who can be reassured that the letters will be completely positive.
I’d like to know how others handle this. Before inviting comment, let me very briefly raise an additional issue. Suppose one has a student who performs well in one’s philosophy classes, but who is morally reprehensible in some way – say, for instance, she holds reprehensible views with respect to racial issues. Is an instructor entitled to refuse to recommend her on the basis of her views in this area? Or is she allowed, or perhaps obligated, to mention these views in the letter? Refusing to write a letter in this case strikes me as uncomfortably close to refusing to write a letter of recommendation for someone whom one simply dislikes; I’m not claiming they are strictly analogous, but they are similar enough to worry me. At any rate, this is not a problem for my colleague, who claims that the mere fact that I dislike a student (whether for moral or more idiosyncratic reasons) entitles me to refuse to write her a letter of recommendation, even if I cannot provide any reason beyond my personal distaste.