Thursday, February 11, 2010

On letters of recommendation (or why deans are often unpopular)

I have a story about letters of recommendation that I have been meaning to blog about.

It has to do with the immense irritation I feel when asked to write a letter for someone that has already been offered a job, just so that some dean can check off a bureaucratic box. This happened to me last month (and has happened on other occasions as well).

I got an email from a dean at Leading University (LU) asking for a letter for a senior job candidate (i.e. not a newly minted Ph.D.) within a pretty short time frame. I sat on it for a few days trying to decide whether to do it or not. I did not not really have the time but the candidate was someone whose work I like and who is something of a friend. Let's call the candidate Delbert.

After about a week, and before having replied to the LU dean's initial email, I got an email from a friend at another university, let's call it Spurned University (SU), telling me that Delbert turned SU down to take a job at LU. The friend was not trying to cause trouble, but rather was just passing along information about someone whose job market adventures were of some mutual interest.

This information left me a bit puzzled and sort of ready to be irritated and so I decided to stir the pot a bit. When the dean at LU emailed me to follow up on the letter request I adopted a pose of great innocence and asked in my reply about this odd rumor I had heard about Delbert already having accepted an offer at LU. I also asked if perhaps my letter was no longer necessary, given that a decision had already been made.

There was about a day of email silence and then I got a somewhat stern email from the LU dean saying that my information was wrong, and that they really, really needed my letter in order to engage in thoughtful discourse about Delbert, whom they most certainly had not yet made an offer to.

The dean's email seemed a bit desperate (must check off all those boxes!) and so I poked around a bit more. After not very much poking I was reading a forwarded email from Delbert (who ought to know!) to a third party that indicated that Delbert had already accepted a job at LU.

Now, I could have really, really misbehaved and sent the forwarded email from Delbert along to the LU dean with just a row of question marks as the text of my message. But that could have ended up hurting Delbert, which I did not want to do. Instead, I emailed the LU dean indicating that I did not have time to sit down and read a bunch of papers in order to write a fully informed letter but that I would be happy to write a few paragraphs about my views based on what I already knew from reading some of Delbert's papers in the past, seeing Delbert present at conferences, sitting next to Delbert during a truly wretched policy talk by someone from a beltway "think tank" (that was salvaged only by Delbert's ongoing stream of sarcastic asides) and so on.

On a couple of earlier occasions deans at other schools who had not yet already made offers and were actually still trying to make a decision really appreciated even a couple of paragraphs when offered. I never heard back from the dean at LU despite explicitly asking for a reply with either a yes or a no.

If I had not heard about Delbert already having accepted the offer at LU I could have spent essentially a whole day of my time writing a letter about Delbert for LU, all so that some lying dean could put it (unused and maybe even unread) in Delbert's file and then check off another bureaucratic requirement in the hiring process.

This kind of thing is really a waste of the profession's time and makes me think that letters at the senior level should be compensated at the letter-writer's consulting rate.

Oh, and though I was tempted, I did not forward all this information to the provost at LU along with a rant about their dean lying to senior faculty at peer institutions. Maybe I should have.

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