Who do we think may see letters of recommendation?

Depts are free to share confidential letters of recommendations for job candidates with:

  1. Only the search committee for the advertised job
  2. All faculty in the hiring dept
  3. 2 plus any admin that need to sign off on the hire
  4. 3 plus grad students in the hiring dept
  5. 3 plus faculty in other depts that might be interested in a courtesy appointment or have expertise in the area of the candidate
  6. Any faculty or admin at the hiring institution
  7. Any sentient creature
  8. Any merely possible creature

 

10 Replies to “Who do we think may see letters of recommendation?

  1. We have an official rule about this. Letters (or any other part of a hiring file that is not publicly available) can only be seen by the search committee members. If the dept wants to share the letters with others, it needs to get explicit authorization from the candidate and each letter writer.

    But note that at U of Toronto, only the search committee vote on a hiring recommendation (though others send in their opinions), so our situation is a bit different from most American departments.

  2. Right, so another option would be: Anyone who gets to vote on the hiring decision (plus perhaps admin).

  3. I take it the relevant question is really between 5 and 6? Or do you think there’s a good reason to perhaps stop earlier? I’m not sure I see any real disvalue in 6, and I wouldn’t object to its inclusion.

    What’s the real aim of confidentiality? It is first and foremost to enable and encourage honesty (as much as possible) on the part of letter writers (or perhaps “forthcomingness”), so the letter absolutely must be kept from the candidate. That’s job one. But letter writers also don’t want it seen by other people for whom they are also writing, so as to avoid generating hurt or resentment at various comparative assessments.

    Who else’s eyes might discourage honesty/forthcomingness? *Maybe* the eyes of other letter-writers mentioned in the letter? Perhaps they are mentioned as comparative high- *or low*-quality peers. Ouch! If I’m on the committee and read a letter saying, “Candidate compares very highly to others in her cohort, and is certainly far superior to hacks like David Shoemaker,” this will hurt, for sure, regardless of its truth. And if I were writing a letter like that about someone else, I wouldn’t want that person to see it were he/she on a hiring committee for one of my students. But this would be fairly impossible to avoid (and would lead to some committee members seeing only some of the letters, to the detriment of fair comparative assessments with full information among candidates), so I’m incentivized to be perhaps less *brutally* honest in my assessment of students.

    At any rate, I can’t see how the eyes of various administrators and other department members at potential hiring institutions would discourage the relevant sorts of non-brutal honesty in letter-writing which is probably the best we can aim for in inviting such letters.

    Final note: In the move from 6 to 7, you are assuming that administrators are a subset of sentient creatures. Not so fast! ZING!

  4. At most state schools, 7 may be required as a matter of law. Since job candidates are not employees, none of the hiring materials are confidential. There’s a question as to whether the material from the successful candidate’s packet becomes confidential once s/he becomes an employee, but it’s pretty clear that before that happens these are state records that are almost certainly public.

    There could be exceptions for this in some states that I’m not aware of. If you or someone else knows of states with exceptions here, I’d like to hear about them.

  5. The Interfolio files are open to all members of the search committee, and we share the full applications for those we interview with all members of the department, because the entire department votes. Files for finalists are sent to the Dean. I’m sure the Provost also sees the file for the candidate(s) we make an offer to.

    That said, I have circled back to the DGS or Chair of departments on two occasions when utterly inappropriate letters (mentioning the mental health status of a candidate in one case, and the parental status of a candidate in another case) were sent by a member of that department. Imho, when a department is failing to review letters for their graduate students and a letter that violates basic employment laws is sent, the search committee has an ethical obligation to — minimally — refrain from sharing that letter with others who might vote on the hire, and to notify the original department of the problem.

    I have no idea what the relevant U.S. laws are in this kind of case, but would be interested in comments or links from anyone who has insight.

  6. It might also differ depending on the job. At my last uni, the entire departmental faculty saw the files for finalists invited to campus visits. In a recent hire for a new dept chair, it was 3 and 5. For a TT faculty hire, it’s 3 (and the entire faculty was asked to attend meetings with the candidates, and vote on the candidate they preferred). For non-TT hires, it’s the search committee and the dept chair. When I was hired there, it was as part of a campus-wide hiring initiative, so I imagine my letters were seen by lots of people. to my knowledge, the prevailing guideline was “need to know,” but there are different people who might need to know, depending on the type of hire.

  7. Just to follow on Heidi’s comment, when you get hundreds of applications, some letters will certainly have inappropriate comments or information or remarks that the candidate might not want to be public. At earlier stages, I see no reason why anyone outside of the hiring committee should have access to those. Later, I think that anyone who has a vote should be able to see them. I do think that people who have input but no vote (most Faculty members and all graduate students in our department) should have access to the letters (of course, if the law of your state requires them to be public, this is all moot…).

  8. Chris is right about places that have Sunshine Laws. But one could still wonder who we may show letters to without them involving such laws. I assume our positively sending the letters to someone could be not cool even in cases where that same person has the right to demand to see the letter.

  9. Setting aside legal issues, maybe… (9): Anyone who (i) can make a plausible (not necessarily completely convincing) case that the sort of information provided in typical letters of recommendation will have an effect on their judgment about which candidate to select and (ii) has some say, through formal channels, over which candidate gets selected *at the relevant stage at which they’re asking for access*.

    A modification of this would be to include so-called “informal” channels in (ii). That would probably end up making (9) equivalent to (7).

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