"Tell all the truth but tell it slant": Not in Recommendation Letters? (Girls and Boys Gone Wild in Tweed)

Recent news about a former provost who allegedly touched inappropriately, repeatedly inappropriately, colleagues, got me thinking about a serious and pervasive practice in higher education. This was after some initial sophomoric snickering and thoughts I am sure even the most “serious” academic would have after reading about this case.

Letters of recommendation are written to assist colleagues in obtaining jobs.  Some of these colleagues are people we hate to see go, but we want them to develop professionally and if that means relocating, the recommender’s fingers begin to tap on the keyboard, ideally with a clear head and at some time carved out for this very purpose, to do the best job possible on the letter of recommendation.  A letter of recommendation can be a celebration of a colleague’s accomplishments and character, almost a kind of eulogy, only the person is alive and going on to bigger and better things, new things, or different things.

Unfortunately, if you have spent hardly any time in academe you will know that letters of recommendation are also written to get rid of people, to get them out the door.  The person about whom the letter is written might be a difficult person to work with, an outright jerk, a term that should be adopted as on official entry for the lexicon used by human resources, and in some instances, the person might have engaged in behavior the institution and/or its faculty and administrators do not find acceptable.  It is my purpose here not to go into the titillating reasons we want some people gone, but very often these titillating reasons are examples of girls and guys gone wild in tweed, one way or another, to paraphrase from what was a popular and controversial video franchise.

The question I want to ask explicitly is how can someone write a letter of recommendation that will aid an individual’s relocation to another institution, if one does not want to work with that person?  How can one knowingly tell lies, in writing, yes there is a word for such a practice, about a person to get him or her out the door?

I am sure certain recommendation letter writers can justify their actions in a way and on a level that is as harmless to them, as in “everyone does it,” as if we were talking about sampling candy before buying it or eating a grape in the fresh produce section.  I have yet, by the way, to see someone peel open a banana and sample a banana in the store, but judging from behavior in academe, I must just have been absent that day from the green grocer’s.

I am aware of letters of recommendation having been written at an institution where I worked to get someone out the door.  Now, as the years have passed, I am ashamed of my inaction as it involved recommending persons who, if they engaged in alleged behavior, should not be recommended for any job, unless it’s being part of Justin Bieber’s entourage.

Are we not ethically bound in our profession to tell the truth, especially in writing, about other people, and should Emily Dickinson’s “tell all the truth but tell it slant” be misapplied to the writing of what many of us have thought of as an honorable celebration and gift, the recording of another individual’s achievements and character as he or she continues the journey in academe?

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