Thursday, January 30, 2003

"I Cannot Recommend Her More Highly..."

Eugene discusses the fascinating case of a biology professor at Texas Tech who refuses to write recommendations for students who reject the theory of evolution. The case raises questions relating both to law and to academic ethics, and Eugene presents excellent arguments on both sides of both issues. Nonetheless, my strong inclination is to defend the professor’s discretion. Let’s set aside the issue of evolution versus creation, and just look at what it means to write a recommendation.

As a professor, I have to write recommendations fairly often, and it’s not a simple process. When you do it, you’re putting your name and reputation behind someone, saying to others that you think this person is honest, credible, and possessed of the necessary skills or talents for the position he seeks. (Unless, of course, it’s a *bad* recommendation – more on that below.) Writing a recommendation involves, to some degree or another, putting one’s own credibility on the line, and it necessarily involves the exercise of judgment.

Thus, writing a recommendation is not just another requirement of the job, like grading papers or having office hours. It’s making a statement about one’s own beliefs and judgment. Although it would be unacceptable for a professor to say (as one of my sister’s unfortunately said) that he will never write any recommendations at all, there has to be a very wide margin of discretion. To require someone to recommend someone whom they do not deem worthy is to remove all meaning from the word “recommendation.”

I think there is also a relevant practical consideration: there is no way to require that a recommendation be “fair.” As anyone who’s ever written or read a recommendation can attest, it is easy enough to damn a candidate with faint praise. For that matter, the letter writer could just use heavy and uninspiring language, so that the letter is less likely to have a positive impact. It’s rather like trying to compel an actor to perform the role of Hamlet – if he really isn’t inspired by the role, there’s no way to assure a good performance. Requiring professors to write recommendations seems likely to encourage them to write less-than-glowing letters for students who are better off asking someone else.

These considerations hold true even if the particular professor’s judgment is compromised in some way. In the present case, I think the professor is probably correct to doubt the scientific-mindedness of biology students willing to ignore the incredible array of evidence supporting evolution. On the other hand, he is likely mistaken that one’s perspective on evolution has much to do with one’s effectiveness in the medical profession. Yet that is his judgment, and judgment cannot truly be compelled. A policy that requires professors to write recommendations even when their convictions tell them otherwise will either (a) result in weak recommendations not worth having, or (b) result in strong-but-insincere recommendations that diminish the persuasive power of sincere recommendations.

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