Thursday, January 14, 2010

Letters and Rights

I generally assume (undergraduate) students know to waive their rights to look at a letter of recommendation when they ask me to write one, but I recently ran into a student that did not. I explained that my default was that they had to waive their rights, and I'd send in the letter after the checkbox had been changed. If you don't look, though, I find it's easy to miss which box they've checked as you're filling the form out on line.

I simply prefer my confidential letters to be confidential. I understand that waiving their rights is not any sort of guarantee that they won't see the letter, but I think the understanding is important: I'm writing an evaluation of them to my colleagues, and that information is, as a matter of default policy, not meant for their eyes, so I can be forthright in expressing my opinions.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

One might also interpret a faculty member's strident insistence on a wavier as a sign that the recommendation would likely be less than glowing.

Dave said...

What is "the checkbox"? I just applied for many faculty positions, most using different homegrown web forms, and I never encountered one that allowed me to check or uncheck a box that would let me see a letter. They were all either confidential, or in a tiny handful of cases, had a field for me to upload the letter myself (requiring me to explain that I had not secured permission to view the letters so I didn't have any in my possession to upload). Not one made any mention of me having an option to waive or not waive a right to see a letter.

Paul Beame said...

This is something that I check for regularly, whether my recommendation would be glowing or not. The rationale is that the people to whom the letter is addressed will discount any recommendation that does not have this waiver. After suggesting that this might be a reason to sign the waiver (but giving them the option either way) they have always decided to sign it.

Andrew Hunter said...

Seems like simple game theory. If you need that box checked for some students (whom you'll say less than nice things about), then you asking for that box to be checked sends a very bad signal to the student, /unless/ you insist on it from anyone.

Warren said...

Dave: I wondered the same thing when I first read this post, as I also applied for faculty jobs and saw no checkboxes. After a moment's thought I think I figured it out. The federal law that gives students the right to view letters presumably does not apply to faculty candidates. There's no need to waive rights we don't have.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Dave -- this was a letter for an undergraduate applying to grad school, not a grad student applying for faculty positions.

I'll update the post to reflect this.

Yuriy said...

Are there legal problems with asking a student to check the box? Or for withholding your recommendation until they check the box? Seems like "they have the right" should mean that. It doesn't mean those reading the letters will put any weight on a "sharable" letter, but it seems that it may be against the law to require the student to check the box to get your letter.

...on the other hand, I suppose you always have the right to refuse to right a letter. However, if you refuse to write a letter solely because of the student's, say, race, you could be sued. Maybe the same is true for his/her box-checking preference.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, when I applied to grad school, I did not know about this "check the box standard", so I did not. My references still wrote the letters. About 1-2 years later, when I was actually in grad school, I decided to actually find out what had been written. I was told I still couldn't see the letters.

Harry Lewis said...

Anon 4:11, you were misinformed. Those are student records and you have a right to see them unless the people who wrote them stipulated otherwise. Perhaps it was an innocent mistake by a staffer who doesn't understand FERPA, but a call to the school's legal office would probably have changed things, because universities are very familiar with this law. And yes, this is purely about student records (for example, a disappointed applicant, or even accepted applicant who chooses not to matriculate, has no right to see those letters).

Fair warning: People who look at their letters sometimes wish they hadn't!

It is not illegal to refuse to write a letter without a waiver. Personally, I don't think about it very much, but virtually every letter I write comes with a waiver. It does make me pause when I see one where that box isn't checked, since it is so rare, and maybe it subconsciously affects what I write; no way for me to be 100% sure. Nothing wrong with what Michael does, though, seems sensible enough.

Daniel Lemire said...

I'm not certain that would be legal in Canada. I am pretty sure you cannot sign away your right to get access to the letter later.

Anyhow, I tend to dismiss these letters. I know there is a very strong tradition in the USA of relying on reference letters for jobs or graduate programs, but I do not trust these letters.

I work on a committee awarding scholarships to graduate students and you can see clear patterns. In some schools, all professors rate all students very highly. In other schools, the average student is average.

Andrew said...

I'm curious why you require this, at a deeper level than mere confidentiality, because it's hard to see how confidentiality would affect frankness in this instance. The student is clearly on the weaker side of the professor-student power relationship; if s/he finds out that you wrote something unexpected in the letter, what could s/he do about it? Are you merely worried that the student's feelings might be hurt?

Generally, I'm uncomfortable when a professor requires a student to waive rights in order to do something that the student needs. Why bother providing those rights in the first place?

Anonymous said...

I had a very interesting case in which a student tried to arm-twist me into giving him a copy of the letter I had written for his US grad school apps. This student did an internship (at a research lab) under me (in a country other than the US). Despite my US PhD, he thought he could con me into thinking that it was customary for letter-writers to give students a copy. Worse still, he used a legalese language to get me to show the letter making him look like a jerk. Of course, I did not comply.

Anonymous said...

If there is something negative to say about the student, dont you think you should directly give that feedback to the student. Forget recommendation letters, but should this not be a part of the student's development process.