Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Letters of Recommendation? Still?

The U of Venus bloggers did a good exchange at IHE on the value of letters of recommendation in academia.  I’ll throw in a perspective from my corner of the world.

As an open-admissions college, there’s no need for letters for students to get in, and we don’t ask for them.  For faculty, staff, and administrative hires we’ll ask for names and contact information for references, but we only contact those of people on the very short list.  Nobody wants to wade through 50 to 100 sets of letters for a single position, especially given how unrevealing they tend to be.  For the references we actually check, HR reaches out by phone.  

In the past, I’ve been the one to reach out by phone.  I’m not asking for more work, but you can learn things in a live exchange that you might not pick up from a carefully sanitized letter.

I had one candidate for a teaching position who supplied three names to call.  When I called one of them and explained that I was calling to follow up on a reference for the candidate, he asked “who?”  In another case, when I asked about any reservations the person might have about recommending the candidate -- typically, a gimme -- I got a long pause followed by a tremulous “I’m not comfortable answering that.”  Coming from someone the candidate himself chose, that was striking.

The silences were often louder than the words.

The reason this version of reference checking works, I think, is that we’re asking it to fulfill a different function than many places do with faculty searches.  We don’t use references to winnow down the applicant pile.  We winnow down the pile based on our own criteria, followed by performance at the first round interview (which, for faculty, includes a teaching demonstration) and the second round interview.  Reference checking in this system isn’t about seeing who had the biggest name advisor; it’s about making sure that the person who wowed us at two rounds of interviews doesn’t have some Terrible Secret we should know.  

In other words, good references wouldn’t get you a job, but bad ones could lose you a job.  They’re about verification, rather than distinction.

Good reference calls are really quick.  Less-good ones usually take longer, as they should.  I’ve seen that when I was the one giving a reference, too.  I’ve had the good luck to have worked with some terrific people over the years.  Every so often, one of the real stars applies for something and asks me to be a reference.  Last year I got a call for a former colleague whom I consider a rock star; I don’t think the conversation hit the two-minute mark.  “I’m jealous that you get to hire her and I don’t” doesn’t take long to say.

Oddly enough, the one place I’ve been where we used letters in the first round was DeVry.  I remember not knowing how much weight to put on most of them.  Does a relatively brief letter indicate a lukewarm endorsement, a pithy writer, or a different culture?  Later I saw reports of studies suggesting that gender and racial bias creep into letters, which wasn’t really surprising.  About ten years ago a favorite colleague -- a high-energy woman -- asked me to write a letter for her application to a doctoral program.  It took me a few drafts to find language that conveyed “high energy” in a positive way that didn’t set off stupid gendered trip wires.  It worked -- she got in -- but the fact that it took conscious effort to avoid those trip wires was revealing in itself.

I know academia isn’t quick to change, but I wouldn’t mind at all seeing the old tradition of letters for everybody go the way of the typewriter.  It’s a vestige of an earlier time, rife with bias and light on useful information.  A few live conversations do much more good.  Let the candidates shine, or not, on their own.  Just be sure to listen carefully for the silences when you call to verify.