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?