Oct 29, 2011

The Morality of Deception in Academia

It's common knowledge that letters of recommendation for academic positions are generally inflated. This gives rise to some concern about how the letters are to be interpreted, as one must "discount" the praise for a candidate in some way in order to arrive at a more accurate assessment of his or her abilities. There is less concern, however, about the morality of this practice in general.

Compare another case. Suppose that before sending out a transcript in support of a candidate's application, the registrar's office inflated each grade on the transcript by a small amount- changing each A- to an A, for instance. It's quite obvious that this is deceptive and mendacious, whether one school or every school is inflating transcripts. This means that the "everyone is doing it, so it's not a problem" defense of inflated letters is nonsense. If inflating transcripts is wrong, so is inflating letters.

Another reason one might give for inflating credentials is that once one school does it, the rest have to do so in order to compete. Again, this has no plausibility in the case of inflating transcripts, so it shouldn't have any plausibility in the case of inflating letters. Having a need to compete doesn't license any kind of competitive behavior whatsoever. Surely academics, especially those who rail against competitive economic markets, should be suspicious of this kind of rationalization! There is a constant chorus from academics in favor of transparency in government and corporations; by the same token they should be advocating greater transparency in academia.

One might object that grade inflation, carried out by professors rather than offices of the registrar, is also deceptive according to my argument so far. Indeed, it's hard to see how it is not. Why would it make a moral difference whether the agent of deception is a professor rather than an administrator?

An honest letter or transcript has a potential cost-- making the candidate seem relatively less attractive-- but also an important benefit, in that letters that aren't gushing and transcripts that aren't inflated tend to create a situation of greater trust. It may be more beneficial for one's letter writers to be forthright but trusted than to have gushing letter writers who are not trusted by their peers.

While philosophers enjoy theorizing about the ethics of various professions (lawyers, doctors, soldiers, etc.), there is much less discussion of the ethics of being an academic or an academic philosopher, though the ethical issues pertaining to the latter are just as important.


  1. I find this a huge challenge, both as a writer and consumer of letters of reference. What I notice is that each faculty member tends to have their own style, so you can effectively compare letters from the same individual. The problem is that you get so few letters from the same prof, this is almost impossible. I'm sure I am guilty of loose compliments but I always try to ground assessment in comparative facts, such as class standing, or my assessment of the percentile standing of the student in the relevant group (e.g., top 5% of undergraduate students I've taught over 25 years).

  2. Thanks George- I think the comparative assessment approach is fairly common, though from what I've heard it still lends itself to a Lake Wobegon effect.

  3. Deception is certainly bad, I agree, but I don't know how much actual deception there is in academic letters of reference. I've read a lot of such letters recently and they appear to divide into two types. One, which I'll call letters of reference, describes the person in what seems to be an objective way, noting both good points and bad. The other, which I'll call letters of recommendation, only mentions good things. I don't see this as being dishonest, but it is very hard to compare two candidates when they have different types of letters being written about them. At the initial screening stage I think many search committees are looking for reasons to exclude a candidate from further consideration, so any negative comment might do real harm. When so many people are writing letters of recommendation, I think it's arguably immoral for someone to choose to write a letter of reference instead.

  4. DR-
    I'm mostly going off second-hand reports that one hears on certain academic blogs. The discussions go like this: "Look, we all know letters are overblown. In light of that, how can we accurately assess the merits of candidates?"

    The discussions tend not to go in this kind of direction: "Why are these letters so overblown, and might this not be a moral issue? Are there other more palatable alternatives?"

    I think there must be. Very few professions require something like a letter of recommendation to obtain a job. Businesses often deal with even more applicants than universities for an open position. They might rely more heavily on pedigree than universities claim to, though whether pedigree is actually more influential in business than academia seems like an open empirical question. There are extreme cases like the importance of law school pedigree for getting an academic job in a law school, that would caution against thinking academia comes out better than business in this respect.

    I think there may be alternatives other than ditching letters, though. Grad students could compile a file of comments their professors made on their seminar papers, and submit that instead of a letter, for example. My sense is that paper comments are more likely to be accurate assessments of a student's performance than anything one would see in a letter of recommendation.

    Part of the problem with letters is that they're not tethered to anything. Professors' comments on papers, however, are closely tethered to the grades they give students' papers, and so may be less prone to excessive praise.

    I think a big part of the problem here actually stems from grade inflation in Ph.D. programs. As I understand it, graduate transcripts play little role in a student's success on the job market. This is much less true in other professional schools, like law school, where grades are not quite as tightly clustered around the A/A- range.

    The less informative grades are in terms of distinguishing the best students, the more search committees will rely on other kinds of information.

  5. I agree that neither grades nor letters are all that useful. Grades especially, because of the clustering that you mention. Letters would be more helpful, in my opinion, if they were all written in the same way, either all full of praise or all mixing praise with criticism. The latter might sound better, but a) not everyone will balance the two the same way (so that a candidate who seems worse than another might simply have letters written by more critical people), and b) far more people write letters that offer nothing but praise, so if we are going to have standardization this seems to be the way to go. But search committees have to rely on other information anyway, and I think they do. Teaching schools will look hard at teaching evaluations of various kinds, for instance, and research schools usually look hard at writing samples. Of course, many schools will do both. I'm sure pedigree counts for a lot too, although this can work against a candidate as well as in his or her favor. Your idea of including comments from papers is interesting, but I imagine it would say much more about the person's scholarly work than about their teaching, service, or personality. Many letters at least touch on these things too, which is (potentially) helpful.

  6. A man does what he must - in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures - and that is the basis of all human morality.