Wednesday, January 25, 2006


A Modest Proposal: Eliminate References

Eliminate references, letters of recommendation, and anything along those lines from searches.

The parallel, I think, is to selective colleges eliminating SAT’s from admissions decisions. What looks, at first blush, like a lowering of standards actually winds up increasing the quality of the applicant pool.

In the case of eliminating SAT’s, it does so by signaling that the college has a deeper view of education than can be shown on a multiple-choice test. (Do they even use number two pencils anymore? I’m so old. Back in my day, we wrote with burned bark, and we liked it!) The selective colleges that have taken this step have thrived, achieving both greater diversity and higher academic standards among their students.

I think we should do the same for faculty and (especially) administrative searches.

Letters are badly flawed for entry-level faculty positions. Different writers have different standards and styles, there’s no generally-accepted template for letters, and European letter-writers often take a more diffident approach, inadvertently dooming their charges to extended unemployment here. But at least at the entry level it’s not weird to be looking for a job.

At more senior or administrative levels, though, asking someone to write a letter for you pretty much tells them that you’re looking. The only time you want anyone at your home institution to know that you’re looking is when you have an offer in hand. Until then, it can only hurt.

If I’m right about that, then a college that doesn’t ask for references could attract a much larger, and much more interesting, pool of applicants.

Each candidate would stand or fall based on his or her own presentation. This is not a bad thing; if I hire a turkey, it’s of little comfort to me that someone at his old school liked him. Besides, one of the running jokes about references is that truly glowing references at senior levels reflect not glowing performance, but a burning desire to be rid of the candidate.

Given anxieties about litigation, few references come with anything approaching candor. To compensate for the lack of candor, many writers have resorted instead to hyperbolic praise, making the slightly less inflated letters look lukewarm by comparison. An arms raise of puffery ensues, with each letter writer working the thesaurus just a little harder than the last. To base decisions on this rather than, oh, I don’t know, any other input is insane.

I can imagine an objection that failure to check letters would constitute a failure of ‘due diligence,’ especially if it turned out that the candidate has a shady past. That said, in all the searches on which I’ve participated, I’ve never seen a letter reveal (or even refer to) a shady past, and in today’s litigious climate I’d be shocked to. I’ve never seen anything along the lines of “Rest assured that the charges of public bestiality were somewhat exaggerated” in a letter.

Instead, it seems to me that letters are required because it looks like rigor, because it’s always been done that way, and because nobody ever got fired for requiring them. That’s fine when times are easy and flush, but these aren’t those times.

Who’s first?

Reading your blog, it came to mind that there is a parallel between reference letters for jobs and reference letters for students trying to get into the college of "their choice"-and we all know how hard that is!(A parent actually wrote a letter to our AP Physics teacher accussingi the teacher of ruining her little dumplings chance of getting into had nothing to do with his total lack (and I don't CARE if he has a 145 IQ) of accountability or not turning in his homework or even turning the page over to take the REST of the Final???? that gave him a C. OH well, I love reading your blog about the higher levels of academia and how it really doesn't change as you go up a level!!!
Ok, I've got to say I think that the decision of whether or not to include letters of reference or whatever should be made at the local level, the search committee level. I get your point about the letters of reference that you make in your post, but I really found the recommendations useful in the search that I've been helping with this year. The letters of recommendation have tended to show the candidate's personalities whereas their own materials really haven't - in part because I think that the letter of application has been made into such a science that people's letters of applications read like form letters with different information put in. Yes, with a really great writer you get a sense of voice, but most of the letters that people write for themselves run together. It's in the letters of recommendation that I got a sense of who the people were. Perhaps this isn't the case in other fields? Or with searches for administrators? At any rate, it's not that I think it would be lowering standards to lose the letters of rec. but rather that it would be losing an important indicator of what kind of colleague the applicant might be.
At my CC we didn't have letters as a requirement. We did ask for references and only called the references for those we intended to hire.

No letters did require us to look carefully at transcripts, cover letters and CVs. It would have been nice to accept, but not require, aggregate teaching evaluations -- since we do a lot of teachiing around here.

I do think that someone who has tenure and no logistical reason to be on the market (i.e. spouse job = move or something) is in a hard spot in terms of asking for a letter. Why should they risk the political implications at home if they don't get the job?
For the most part kind of agree, but the letters are really helpful at the narrowing-down stage. When you have 80 applicants for one position, it's kind of tough to know who to choose. Sometimes letters can be really helpful, especially if there are multiple candidates from the same institution. Also, my field is small, so we start to get a sense of a writer's style, and eventually you can see when their letter indicates that a candidate is truly outstanding. (Well, *I* can't do this yet, but many of my colleagues can.)
I would think that letters not only help as an initial screen when there many applicants, but having the requirement may reduce the number of marginal applications. Only those who can find a plausible reference can apply.

Doesn't dropping the SATs dramatically increase the administrative cost of admissions?
My institution doesn't use references for lower-level staff positions because, as you say, what's the point? But we *do* confirm degrees listed by applicants with the granting institution. It's staggering how many people lie about degrees when applying for a job at a university. Do they think we don't know how to check?!
-I'm accounting as fast as I can
As a job seeker, I hate the letter requirement. Last year when my job search was not limited by location I had a very hard time deciding which jobs to apply to. I would call but sometimes the initial job screening wasn't throught the department (HR instead). How do you decide if the department is looking for someone like yourself if the department doesn't even know they are looking yet? It was very frustrating.

I don't want to ask my references (very busy people) to create 50 letters, even if the letters are almost identical. It still takes time to change to school specific information. The faculty with secretaries, well, I don't mind asking for many, many letters but two of my references don't have the luxury of a secretary.

Basically, due to employment laws where I am now (not US), I am not even in the running for teaching positions. It's almost a relief. I'm not ready to ask for another batch of ten or twelve letters. Ugh.
This is in response to chemgoddess: Again, this is why I think that the decision about whether to ask for letters should be made by whoever is running the search. In my discipline (English) recommenders put their letters on file, either at the grad institution or through a reference service, so the recommenders are not writing multiple letters. If this weren't the case, i think I'd agree with you that getting recommenders to write multiple letters would be a real hassle.
We're in the home stretch of hiring, and I have to say that the letters of rec. have primarily been used to weed someone out (i.e., rec. not glowing, doesn't mention teaching, or makes it obvious that the candidate is perhaps stretching his or her focus on the advertised field) or to advertise status ("ooh--s/he worked with FancyProf at Prestige U!!"). I'm not ready to say I would jettison them entirely (this is my second search experience: 1 as a jobseeker, and now 1 on the interview committee), but I am willing to consider the notion...
This is an interesting proposal, and I tend to agree with those who say that this is probably best determined locally -- i.e., by the search committee. I've served on two faculty searches the last several years. In one we asked for letters, in the other we didn't. In the search where we didn't ask for letters, we called references instead. Collectively, the committee ended up calling references for around 8 of the candidates on our short list. We divided up the reference calling; teams of two search committee members did the reference calls.

I found that we learned a lot more by talking to references than we ever would have from reading letters. My experience was that references were more likely to give an honest appraisal of a candidates strengths and weaknesses. Letters of reference aren't usually as informative. (This might vary from field to field, though.) I'm left with a slight preference for not asking for letters. However, other faculty who served with me on the search felt differently.

Also, as Dean Dad pointed out, letters from overseas are particularly hard to parse. I recently served as a reader of applications for an international graduate summer school. We had applications mostly from North America, but many from Europe, Asia, and South America as well. It was very hard to know how to read letters from non-native speakers from countries where, presumably, the culture of letter writing is different than that to which I'm accustomed.

Two years ago I chaired the search committee for my college's registrar. We didn't ask for letters and it worked just fine. Again, we called references, and learned a lot about the potential candidates. Many of these calls were pretty quick, so it wasn't a huge time sink.
"arms race of puffery" -- love that line.

I do think that letters can be useful if they contain not just qualitative assessments but details, particularly putting the candidates' research into perspective and work habits, etc.
In my turns on search committees for faculty positions, I have found recommendations helpful. The best was one that began along these lines: "Had X still been a student in my department, I would have advised him not to apply for your position, because his qualifications really don't match what you are looking for. Since he has graduated, however, and has requested this letter, I can say...."

But other letters are also useful. I'm at an R1 university, and letters from a student's advisor or other leaders in their field are often much better at situating a grad student's work in the field than is the student himself or herself--if only because he or she lacks the perspective that decades of familiarity brings. When I was a youngster, I was often startled by how much of what I thought of as normal, self-evident approaches to my subject was considered innovative by others. I suspect my referees' letters did a much better job of talking me up to prospective employers than I was able to do myself.

When you have 200 applications for a job, it's easy to toss out the first 100 because they're really not suited to it. But letters can help in deciding which 10-15% of the remaining 100 are worth interviewing at the first stage. Again, I'm at an R1, with its own needs and preferences. Maybe they're less useful elsewhere.
I had so much to say on this topic that I wrote it on my own blog.
I like the idea of not having letters! Weed out applicants by their vitae and their own personal materials. Then each member of the committee contacts a ref or 2 for each remaining candidate; thus you thin the pool for your campus visit. While in graduate school my dept hired an Ivy League grad who had never taught a single class ... and the on campus visit wasn't so great either ... hired almost exclusively because letters came from really big name people at Ivy League U. The new hire was a complete disaster who soon left for greener pastures. I find rec letters monotonous and repetitive. A 2-minute phone call with a reference yields more than a frothy 2-page rec letter that has been recycled who knows how many times.
Several posters here have commented about eliminating the requirement for recommendation letters for degree program applicants. Personally, I think that's a tremendous idea.

I've just applied to several Ph.D. programs. I made the mistake of picking a recommender who, in the past, was extremely tardy in completing a recommendation. (Fool me once, shame on you... fool me twice...) At this point, he's four weeks overdue and I'm rather afraid that my chances of getting my application looked at in a timely manner are essentially gone. At a minimum, that's $300 out the window in application fees, GRE fees, and transcript fees.

The curious thing is that this same professor recommended me for an academic award of merit, selected me to be his teaching assistant, and worked with me on my thesis. He has given me a good deal of accolades.

The message I'm getting loud and clear is that recommendation letters for students don't warrant his attention when there are larger matters at hand--like his self aggrandizement.

Yes, I'd second it; let's do away with these horrid letters.
I agree with Dr. Crazy; the local search committee is in a good position to decide. In one faculty search I participated in, an ABD candidate did not have a letter from their own advisor. The reasons became clear during the interview, and we should have realized this in advance; without letters we wouldn't have even had a chance. Regarding keeping a search quiet, someone on a more senior level should have contacts elsewhere who can write an appropriate yet discrete letter. It may be necessary to choose carefully (based on gossip potential), however.
Nice thing about most CCs, scores are only used for placement. Letters of recommendation are still required at my institution, but carry little weight. Search committees often wonder why there are no letters from direct supervisors (deans, divisions heads). The worry about reprisals for even daring to change employers is often the reason.

I have even had applicants state "When you are ready to make the offer, I will provide the letters".
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