Writing Letters of Recommendation

By: Barbara Bennett Peterson

The dictionary defines a recommendation as an opportunity and an instrument to “commend,” “praise,” “to make acceptable,” and to “suggest with favor” a person, usually for a job or select position. With so many young academic professionals looking for positions, especially tenure track positions at America’s universities and colleges, it is important to remind ourselves of the significance and importance of a letter of recommendation for our students and colleagues. By definition, a proper letter “recommends” and “entrusts” another person’s name for consideration for some post desired by the requestor of the letter. Such a letter is usually requested by a student from their professor, and the assumption is that the professor will “suggest with favor” that student. The idea that a letter of recommendation should include criticism, belittlement or negatives as to qualifications is anathema to the intent of a recommendation. A request for a letter of recommendation is NOT to be confused with a request for a confidential evaluation. A recommendation request is a request for support. It is much better to decline to write a letter of recommendation than to supply a negative one. This is only fair and the right thing to do.

Moreover, it is dishonest to tell a requestor that they will receive a recommendation when in fact critical remarks rather than praise will knowingly be made. Ethics are really involved here; and ethics and trust must remain vital parts of the academic workplace. The reputation of the university or college where the student is trained may hinge upon the “honesty” and “directness” of each professor who has the courage to explain to a requestor the reason for writing—or not writing–a letter. Letters of recommendation written and sent ultimately become part of a scholar’s professional reputation. Writing only positive recommendations after accepting only invitations from those students each professor feels are deserving of praise, protects both student and professor as well as their institutions.

Proper letters exemplify thoughtful reflection, deliberation, and knowledge about the requestor’s abilities. Letters should be properly directed to the person who will make the hiring decision, with all addresses, titles, departments, and institutions correct and clear. Often the writer will be held accountable for the proper delivery and timeliness of a requested letter. Above all, a letter of recommendation must be useful to the intended reader. Proper letters of recommendation should be viewed as an opportunity to boost your candidate for a position. Someone’s career may hang in the balance.

Letters of recommendation are important in a digital world and may often also be sent far afield, not just to the original destination requested like a placement file but also on to many other destinations through email or other digital means. Any letter sent via email is fair game. One should remember that campus computers are usually the property of the institution, so one’s files may be open to administrative review. Professors, especially part-timers, often share computers; and hence files may be inadvertently opened and reviewed when the original writer believed them to be secure and confidential. In the most extreme cases computers may be hacked, vandalized, or subject to ransomware. Letters could fall into the wrong hands. Extreme damages could involve accusations of libel if unfair or unsubstantiated criticisms have been included in a so-called letter of recommendation. It is much better to ward off any potential difficulties by writing a positive and credible reference in the first place so one never fears a letter’s whereabouts or unforeseen consequences. This is especially true for new faculty who may be faced with maintaining “high standards,” “rigorous discipline,” and “reputation for high expectations.” All of these can and will be maintained by an effort to be discreet in writing letters that support and encourage well qualified applicants.

Your good name and reputation may very well rely upon your good faith in providing a requestor with a good letter, as “what goes around, comes around.” When you write a positive and fair recommendation, you will feel that you can later go to that person and request support in return. All of this may seem self-evident, but it is amazing how often errors in judgment or petty jealousies influence recommendation writing. The Golden Rule vividly applies here.

A letter of recommendation takes time to write and requires care in its delivery. A letter, whether positive or negative, may remain in the requestor’s file for years. An applicant may never know that a negative letter is why they continue to be turned down for jobs or promotions. In almost every case, that negative letter will come to light somehow, somewhere, often with dire consequences for the letter-writer.

Hence, it is always the best policy to accept an invitation from a requestor to write a letter for them ONLY when you can write something fair, positive and balanced that seeks to ensure their success. You will always be rewarded with good benefits and more often than not be praised yourself for integrity and professionalism. This assists too with that category for tenure (or any job) review known as “Collegiality.” And, of course, this is the Mortar Board way.

Barbara Bennett Peterson, Ph.D. was tapped by Mortar Board in 1963 by Oregon State University’s Cap & Gown chapter. She is emeritus professor of history at the University of Hawaii and was a fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu. The photo of Raphael’s winged angels was taken from the public domain.