Dear Members of the Committee: Stop Asking for Letters of Recommendations

Dear Members of the Selection Committee,

I write to you to offer my enthusiastic support for you to stop asking for letters of recommendation for jobs; placement into your graduate, medical, and law program or summer camp; and grants, fellowships, scholarships, and internships. I appreciate the hard work that committees such as yours do and am grateful for your thoughtful consideration of this proposal, which I consider in the top 5% of brilliant ideas I’ve had to improve higher education in the seven years I have served as a professor.

I have now written more than one billion such letters, and I know that many of you have written far more.  Across our profession, we are dedicating hours we could be earning tenure or checking Facebook to drafting letters of support which we all know are exaggerations of the excellence of our students, who, despite this, really are more excellent than we could ever describe in words. In this process, we become like a couple with one chronically tardy partner; the punctual person sets all the clocks in the house 10 minutes fast to help get the other person out the door on time, and the late partner quickly assumes that all the clocks are set 15 minutes fast. (In this metaphor, you are the partner who set the clock ten minutes fast, and I am the one who is rounding up all the children, turning off the stove, going back inside for the diaper bag, and packing the snacks while you sit in the car and honk for me to hurry up, you lazy jerk.)  Outstanding, best, excellent, exceptional, and other superlatives quickly lose meaning when we are talking about a pool of candidates who are highly qualified and impressive and when letter writers face immense pressure to help their students and colleagues secure jobs in a market facing artificial scarcity.

Image result for man looking at watch

For realsies, let’s stop wasting our time. 

This last fact, unfortunately, pits me against you.  Your job, as the selection committee, is to hire the best candidate you can secure for the job you have. (I am perhaps being generous here. Maybe your job is to hire the Chancellor’s wife or to hire the person who will do the job well enough but be unlikely to do it so well as to get other job offers that would allow him to leave. Or maybe you are planning to hire someone who is qualified but not so good as to increase the pressure that you will have to increase your productivity, make you look bad, or one day compete for the sweet program director gig you’ve been sucking up for far too long. But let’s just go with the idea that you are here to hire the best person for the job.)

I do not care if you hire the best person for the job. Indeed, if we are at competing institutions, I may want you to hire someone who is terrible. Instead, I want you to hire the person I recommend. If that person has earned my support in getting this job (so, no one who is grossly unqualified, has a history of abusing authority, has an open Title IX investigation against them, etc.), I’m going to tell you that they are the best person for the job because my loyalty is with them, not you.

My goal is to get my students hired because this improves the reputation of my department and university. (It also helps when I am contacting graduates for donations.) I try to get my colleagues and friends hired or help them win grants because it is better for me to have employed, powerful, connected friends and colleagues. It’s even more useful to have those people owe me a major favor, like helping them get employed. Under these circumstances, why would you even ask me for a letter? I do not have your best interests at heart. Ideally, I would like you to overpay my friends to work for you.

You want me to supply a letter (No—hundreds of letters), which means I am doing your work of figuring out who is the best candidate for your job. Unsurprisingly, I prefer not to do this. Given that the academic job market is in a chronic state of crisis and that a dwindling percent of highly qualified applicants will get good jobs (or major grants), you could pick a candidate at random from your hundreds of applicants and probably still get a good hire. Your department and students will likely be fine with whoever you hire, and if you can’t see the red flags for people who are toxic, my letter won’t help. (Plus, I just wouldn’t write a letter for such a person. If I’m writing the letter at all, it means that I don’t think the candidate is going to embezzle, sexually harass anyone, or pass student-athletes through non-existent courses.) Given that your job call is ridiculously narrow and the job duties as described will immediately change upon hiring, your salary is insultingly low, and your interview process is pointless, a lottery system would probably work fine.

You invoke “professional courtesy” as a reason to burden your colleagues with writing countless letters you may never even read. (At a minimum, don’t ask for such letters until a candidate has survived the initial pass.) This is not a “professional courtesy” but an act of sabotage that prevents me from using my time more meaningfully, such as watching those videos of average citizens saving animals who have fallen into icy waters.

I propose that your committee decides which characteristics of a candidate are most important and find ways of discovering if those in your pool possess them without asking someone who has an inherent conflict of interest for help. I don’t know exactly how that might work, but perhaps the overpaid people in HR could read the peer-reviewed research I should be writing right now to make a data-driven decision about how to hire people more efficiently. Some ideas: If you want someone with strong teaching experience, ask the candidate for a teaching portfolio. If you want someone who has won a lot of grants, ask them to list the grants they’ve won. If you want someone with connections to powerful advisors and mentors, ask them to provide contact information for such people, then you make the phone call and ask if the relationship is real.

In this market, you don’t need to hire someone based only on potential, and you can get the evidence you need to see if they are able to do the teaching or research without interrupting the nap I am taking in my office. If you have any concerns about the accuracy of the information presented in other parts of the application, then give me a call or drop me an automated email with a link to a simple form that asks me if I’d support this person in getting this job. Be sure that it includes the questions you actually care about and can’t assess via their writing sample, teaching portfolio, or CV: Will this person leave the copier jammed or the microwave filthy? Steal my GA hours? Invite me to MLM parties? Blow off office hours and leave me to explain to their students how to contact them? Show up late to meetings like they are the only person in the room who had to be pulled away from research to hear about how we’re all failing at whatever new task the assessment office has foisted on us?

And if you just can’t let the letter of recommendation go, I’ll still write one for you. I know someone who is the perfect fit for the position.

Dr. Barrett-Fox

PS. Of course, this is somewhat facetious. I do not nap in my office (though this is mostly because I work from home, so I can pop upstairs to my bedroom for a nap). And, as I make clear here, I only write letters for strong applicants, so if you have received one from me, it’s because I mean it, so you can trust it. And those who need letters of recommendation from me should not be discouraged from asking. This problem isn’t of your making, and I love re-visiting the successes of my friends, colleagues, and students, so please ask! And of course I want every department and program and university to be successful and the work of knowledge production requires cooperation, not competition, really, you get the point, right?

PPS. There are a hundred other reasons to object to letters of recommendation as an early-stage job application requirement, including racism, sexism, and ableism.

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