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.