Ethical concerns surround letters of recommendation
MADISON, Wis. – When some college professors are asked to write recommendations for students, they simply have the students write the recommendations before giving their approval.
Graduate schools across the country have said that as long as a professor has signed a letter, there is nothing wrong with allowing students to write their own recommendations, according to The New York Times.
University of Wisconsin philosophy professor Mike Byrd, who writes recommendation letters regularly, says that he would never have a student write his or her own letter.
“If I agreed to write a recommendation letter for someone, I would need to know enough about that person to do it myself,” he said. “To me, not having enough time to write a letter is not a serious reason.”
Byrd added that as a professor, he has a basis of comparative knowledge that students do not have, especially looking backward over the years at large groups of people.
“Students don’t know how they compare to large groups of people. Some people are overly reticent about themselves, while others are overly assertive,” he said. “I think in the long run, the quality of a letter one would get would suffer if it were written by the applicant.”
Byrd said he was unsure if this is an ethical issue or a matter of personal preference.
“I would say that among the great ethical issues, this doesn’t top the list, but I would never have a student write his or her own recommendation letter. I feel a responsibility to do it myself,” Byrd said.
Randy Cohen, author of The New York Times Magazine column The Ethicist, said he did not view the issue as an ethical one.
“There is nothing intrinsically ethical or unethical about it. It is my understanding that when a professor signs a letter, he or she is endorsing ideas about the student, not claiming authorship,” said Cohen, adding that he could be misunderstanding the conventions among professors but that he believed the practice to be common and not deceptive.
“The obligation you have as an applicant is not to deceive your reader. If you’re unsure about something, you should refer to someone with a knowledge of what is commonly acceptable,” Cohen said.