Recommendation wars

While students increasingly sue professors for less-than-gushing recommendation letters, professors are subtly crafting their criticism in calculated ambiguities.

Published September 24, 1998 9:25AM (EDT)

Universities offer them to tenured professors as polite inducements to find work elsewhere; employers hold them up as bargaining chips in labor disputes between faculty and parents in wealthy school districts; and the academics who must read and write them have also made them into a running joke. No one who has glimpsed behind the curtain and seen the machinations of academia can take them completely seriously.

Despite being under casual attack from all sides, the letter of recommendation survives. The cockroach of exaggeration refuses to die.

Which isn't to say that personal references haven't always been rife with
outrageous claims. Back in 1941, long before he dreamed up the
religion that would become so dear to the Hollywood elite,
L. Ron Hubbard got a Washington state representative and family friend to sign
a blank piece of Legislature letterhead so the young Scientologist could
write a letter recommending himself to the U.S. Navy.

"This will introduce one of the most brilliant men I have ever known: Captain L. Ron Hubbard," the missive barked, lauding Hubbard for having written "many millions of words and some fourteen movies," for his contributions to the
field of "minerological [sic] knowledge" and taking care to note his
"considerable influence in the Caribbean and Alaska." It worked; Hubbard was
accepted to the Navy. Once enlisted, he bombarded his superiors and congressmen
with bright ideas, among them a plan for a bulked-up air corps, and was later
able to take credit for inventing the Air Force.

Nowadays, a young L. Ron likely wouldn't need to write the thing himself,
because everybody knows a puffed up letter of recommendation is often just a
humble request away.

"Nobody is ever just pretty good or even in the top 20 percent: Every student earns superlatives. Every one of them is one of the best," writes Yale law professor and bestselling author Stephen L. Carter in his 1996 book
"Integrity," which devotes several pages to dissecting the banal tangle of
accolades that often passes for a personal reference. "Recommendation letters
are written in language in which there are only a few gradations: brilliant, one
of the best, or the best."

While a clerk for Thurgood Marshall in the early '80s, Carter came across two letters from a prominent law professor calling two different students the brightest in the same law-school class. "As this was obviously impossible, the only rational option was to discount both letters entirely," he writes. Bummer, to be sure. But in most cases, sifting through the outrageous claims is, while far from enjoyable, entirely possible.

For one thing, "There are ways to indicate that somebody's personality is
sub-optimal," says Duke's director of undergraduate admissions, Christoph
Guttentag. When a candidate is said to "lead by example," one could easily
interpret that to mean he's an asocial geek with an aversion to rule-breaking. No positive recommendation can be trusted without an anecdote or
two, which Guttentag calls the "golden key" to letters of recommendation. "The
least useful recommendation I ever received," he says, "was one sentence, and
it said, 'This transcript speaks for itself.'"

- - - - - - - - - -

When Carter warns (with some hyperbole of his own) that "as we spin toward
hyperbole, it is harder and harder to trust (or even to understand) the
literal meaning of what we say to each other," he neglects to account for a
corresponding increase in savvy among those reading the recommendations.

"After you've read 10,000 letters of recommendation you get a sense for the
content and the structure of the recommendation, as to whether this is really
somebody outstanding or whether a teacher is just participating in some
puffery," Guttentag says.

"There's always this dialectic," says author and Harvard philosopher Sissela
Bok, who discusses the topic of inflated recommendations in her 1978 book
"Lying: Moral Choices in Public and Private Life." "The more people try to get
around the truth, the more some others who need to know will try to find out."

They are recommendation letters, after all. We expect them to be positive,
perhaps a bit overenthusiastic at times. Most professors I spoke with said the
best means of cutting through the B.S. is to get on the phone. "You get these
letters that people feel pressured into writing, whereas over the phone you
get good stuff," says William H. Willimon, Dean of the Chapel and professor of
homiletics at Duke. "Suddenly this great letter of recommendation just wilts
over the phone."

"The best thing about a phone call is it's not traceable," agrees Robert Thornton, a professor of economics at Lehigh University. In these litigious times, this can prove to be quite an asset. Disgruntled recommendees are finding it increasingly appropriate to sue the less than thoroughly laudatious boosters for libel and defamation. Thornton was so tired of negotiating the narrow terrain between truth and a cadre of hungry lawyers, he developed the "Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations (LIAR)."

"For somebody who is totally dishonest, you could say something like 'Her
true ability is deceiving.' Or for a real boozer you could say, 'His real
talent is getting wasted in his current position,'" he suggests.

When you're aiming for generic half-heartedness, Thornton
recommends: "I cannot recommend this candidate too highly," "I am pleased to say that this candidate is a former colleague of mine" or "I would urge you to
waste no time in making this candidate an offer of employment." The collection
was published as a book in 1988, and a revised edition has just been published
by Almus Editions. A company called Wild Cow Publishing has even put up a
that, with a nod to Thornton's book, will help you concoct a
"litigation-proof" recommendation.

But "LIAR" is meant only as a joke. In reality, when asked for a
recommendation from a lackluster candidate, most professors will either
politely decline (you still can't sue for that) or let a haze of
bland plaudits make their point. "A lot of us are kind of wafflers, and maybe
a bit wishy-washy," Thornton laments.

For many, particularly high school guidance counselors in well-off, pressure-filled school districts, reluctance to report the complicated truth is a matter of survival. Counselors have found themselves in hot water after
failing to recommend a student highly enough, and some are even reportedly
taking out liability insurance against the possibility of getting sued.
"Counselors say they are eager to prevent such embarrassments and often resort
to coded language in their reports suggesting the college telephone them," the
New York Times reported last March.

Helping students get into college is, after all, a sizable part of a guidance counselor's job. And for those too busy to write their own references, a former counselor from New Jersey named Mary Yates Mack has come up with "The
Winning Manual of Recommendations." The booklet contains nearly 100 "ready-to-use" reference letters and is an entertaining mix of catch-all praise
(imagine "this transcript speaks for itself" said a hundred different ways) and ultra-specific detail ("_______ has chosen dentistry for a future career. When asked why, he states, 'I enjoy sciences and my ______ is a dentist. I believe I could be a good dentist because I am friendly and enjoy work.'" "She was born in Puerto Rico."). One feels for the unfortunate student whose name is
actually penciled in to one of these things.

Besides being essentially useless as a means of evaluation, that kind of flat positivity can be reckless. Consider the case of Gina Grant,
whose 1995 acceptance to Harvard was retracted when anonymous letters tipped
the school off to a fact her guidance counselors neglected: At age 14, in
South Carolina, Gina Grant had killed her alcoholic mother.

Another kind of reckless praise often happens with what Duke's Willimon
calls "the letter to get you out of here." In 1997's Randi W. vs. Muroc Joint
Unified School District et al., the California Supreme Court examined a
situation in which employers had "failed to use reasonable care in recommending
former employees for employment," and held a school district liable for
recommending a man who had allegedly been forced to quit after several
instances of sexual misconduct. It wasn't long before he started as assistant
principal at Livingston Middle School that Robert Gadams set about molesting a
13-year-old girl in his office.

During his tenure with two California school districts, Gadams had had a
reputation for getting cozy with female students, including making sexual
overtures, giving back rubs, even leading a panty raid. Nonetheless, one former
colleague was happy to praise Gadams' "genuine concern" for students and his
"outstanding rapport" with everyone, concluding, with a double
entendre, "I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Mr. Gadams for any

"This goes on quite often," Bok says. "The person who's getting rid of the
person is so glad to be rid of them that they'll do almost anything, without
any regard for the next institution."

"The idea that this is a game works for the people who know it's a game, and
who know the rules. It's worse for people who innocently blunder into all of
this," she adds. "You need to be street smart."

By Tyler Thoreson

Tyler Thoreson is a writer living in New York.

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