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A colleague of mine has recently asked me about an uncomfortable dilemma that he faces. Some years ago, a rather problematic student of his requested a recommendation letter. My colleague indicated that it would not be a good recommendation, but the student insisted. Accordingly, my colleague provided a not-very-supportive letter containing only completely non-disputable facts, basically saying "This student met the requirements for graduation."

My colleague has recently been approached by a potential employer of the student who wants to have an in-depth discussion about the student. Given the nature of the student, my colleague does not want to get drawn back into dealing with anything to do with them.

What would you recommend as an ethical and appropriate way to deal with this situation?

  • Is the potential employer an academic one or something else (e.g., industrial)? – Mad Jack Jan 4 '18 at 18:33
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    Did the student contact your colleague recently? I would have, if I was asking for another reference several years later. – Rosemary7391 Jan 4 '18 at 18:36
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    @Rosemary7391 My colleague did not mention contact from the student, so I suspect the student has not. – jakebeal Jan 4 '18 at 19:02
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    The word "dilemma" suggests there's a mix of pros and cons. In your statement of the problem, I see only cons. What is it that makes this a dilemma? What is making your colleague consider agreeing to have a discussion? – aparente001 Jan 5 '18 at 13:31
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    I'm not so clear on why your colleague doesn't want to just give a factual-but-honest assessment of the student. Does "rather problematic" mean that they worry about being harassed by the student in some manner? But if so, couldn't this harassment take place whether they say anything about the student or not? Surely whatever they say will be kept confidential. – Pete L. Clark Jan 5 '18 at 13:50
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A simple declination to discuss should suffice.

Hi (Person),

I will not be able to discuss (Mr/Mrs student). Sorry for the inconvenience.

Sincerely, (Professor)

Don't make up a reason. It only gives someone an opportunity to continue asking if they have a way to mitigate said reason. Also, if it is indeed a nefarious as others have suggested, there is nothing for them to take and run with.

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    I suggest that one not name a particular student, but say, "I'm unable to discuss former students." That prevents any inference about this student compared to others. – Bob Brown Jan 5 '18 at 17:12
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    @BobBrown I think the implication there is a general inability to discuss former students—which isn't true. – AmagicalFishy Jan 5 '18 at 19:28
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    @AmagicalFishy In the United States, and in the absence of a FERPA release, which seem to be the case here, it is true. – Bob Brown Jan 5 '18 at 20:45
  • @BobBrown In the case that a student puts you down for a job recommendation? (My mistake, if that's the case!) – AmagicalFishy Jan 5 '18 at 21:20
  • @AmagicalFishy Right... in the United States, without that FERPA release, one cannot discuss anything that's part of the "educational record." To be safe, I wouldn't discuss anything at all without that release. – Bob Brown Jan 5 '18 at 22:05
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This smells like a trap. I tend to be more paranoid than most, but this has often paid off. Could it be that this potential employer is really a friend of this student and they're trying to get damning evidence recorded to aid in a planned lawsuit? These manipulative types are adept at spotting people who are easy to manipulate, which would explain why the student originally insisted on your colleague writing a letter, even after he'd been put off. Now he's back with another scheme. That your colleague feels uneasy means that he's aware, on some level, that the student is predatory. My opinion is that he should run away from the situation. He might state that he has a policy against doing any sort of recommendation for anyone he hasn't dealt with in 5 years, since his knowledge would be so dated.

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    What sort of lawsuit could possibly arise? If the student listed the Professor as a reference they’ve given permission to discuss them. Depending on locality some information might still be confidential (e.g., FERPA guidelines), but it’s hard to see a “trap”. (Standard IANAL disclaimer.) – Dennis Jan 4 '18 at 20:44
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    @Dennis In the United States, it is not true that listing someone as a reference gives permission. In order to avoid a FERPA violation, a specific signed release is necessary. – Bob Brown Jan 4 '18 at 21:09
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    @Dennis Going from a faint memory from around 1992: There was a lawsuit in the news, California, IIRC, where a student was suing a prof for not writing a strong enough letter. The letter was positive, but not the glowing praise which "one customarily expected". I don't recall the outcome, but I remember my colleagues and I worried about "damning with faint praise." In the US, you can sue for anything. It doesn't mean you'll win, but you can sure make someone's life hell for a few months, and drain their savings. That's the trap. – B. Goddard Jan 4 '18 at 21:15
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    @Dennis It's not clear from the question that the student even listed the professor, only that the potential employer has contacted the professor. I think it would be far too easy to step over the "FERPA line" and end up in a pile of trouble. This is a "just say no" type of question. – Bob Brown Jan 4 '18 at 21:15
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    @B.Goddard thanks for the example. This was the sort of thing I more had in mind, it seemed absurd to me, but like you say people can sue for anything (and in this case, seemingly have). After all, “innocent until proven broke”. – Dennis Jan 4 '18 at 21:18
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If this is in the United States, in the absence of a FERPA release signed by the student, your colleague cannot discuss anything that's protected by FERPA and should not discuss anything that is arguably protected or might be. It's not just a good idea, it's the law! (But this isn't legal advice.)

FERPA contains an exception for recommendations to schools to which the student has applied. That exception does not apply to potential employers.

The right answer is, "I'm unable to discuss former students."

Edited to add: I was being precise when I wrote "former students;" don't say anything at all about this student. And, as noslenkwah has already written, don't give a reason.

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    If that’s indeed the case then what’s the point of asking for a reference (not a recommendation letter)? Weird laws. – Konrad Rudolph Jan 4 '18 at 23:18
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    @KonradRudolph The U.S. has a bunch of weird laws. The student's request serves to determine willingness to serve as a referee, but it doesn't grant permission to do so. That requires a signed release. There's a pretty good summary of FERPA by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. – Bob Brown Jan 4 '18 at 23:29
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Agreeing with B. Goddard's answer, I might be inclined to also be a bit paranoid about the motivation of your colleague's former student. Having said that, let's take a look at the situation: since

  1. the initial request was several years ago,
  2. assuming the student has not made more recent contact with your colleague asking them to serve as a reference for the potential academic job opportunity in question, and
  3. your colleague did not have a favorable opinion about the student, then

it is best for your colleague to decline potential employer's request.

Note that this is a good general approach to those cases where a student signs someone up as their reference without contacting the potential reference-to-be in the first place; that the student wasn't a very good one makes this approach an even more attractive one for your colleague.

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    Downvoter: care to explain what you disagree with in my answer? – Mad Jack Jan 4 '18 at 19:51
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    I didn't downvote, but I have to say I'm scratching my head why you didn't just upvote B. Goddard and perhaps leave a comment. – aparente001 Jan 5 '18 at 13:37
  • @aparente001 I have already upvoted B. Goddard, but I don't think my answer is a duplicate. Read it again. – Mad Jack Jan 5 '18 at 15:54
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    @aparente001 for the sake of brevity, lets not repeat what others have already manifested. For the sake of a collaborative knowledge base, lets DO build upon one another's contributions. The answer above a) stands alone on its own and b) is too long and too specific for a mere comment. Comments are volatile and can be deleted at any moment for a number of reasons. Jack could edit Goddard's answer, but it had the potential of derailing his (G's) text. Therefore it was a wise move to post as an answer on its own. – Mindwin Jan 5 '18 at 16:40
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Although I'm sure your colleague knows this, I think it should be noted that there is no inaction or, more precisely, a way to not communicate anything good or bad about the student. If your colleague discusses the student, then they will likely have to say something good or bad. If they say nothing at all or if they refuse to discuss, this is a clear implication that they - cannot - discuss the student honestly and without being subject to a lawsuit (if there are such and such laws in the given jurisdiction). Even if the colleague simply says "I do not have time", that indicates the student is not worth their time.

Your colleague does not have much agency in this case. The student did, however, they could have opted not to ask for a recommendation letter.

I think the ethical and safest (legally) thing to do is simply refuse to discuss, saying "I'm afraid I cannot discuss the student with you". And the party responsible for this tacit admission (via an omission) is the student for putting the colleague in this position.

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It's one thing to write a letter of recommendation and another to add to the letter of recommendation your willingness to discuss the candidate further. In positive letters of recommendation, I usually include something like "Please contact me if you have any questions about Mr. Doe."

Did your colleague say in that letter of recommendation that he/she would be willing to discuss the candidate? Since the letter was written several years ago, does the candidate still want to use your colleague as a reference? I wouldn't have this discussion unless both of these conditions were met. If these conditions were met, I'd feel obligated to have the phone conversation, but I would restrict my answers to the bare minimum and make it clear that I wasn't giving a positive recommendation.

In general, it's a lot easier to just refuse to recommend a student than to give a negative evaluation- the real mistake here was in agreeing to write the recommendation letter.

  • I don't know the details of my colleague's letter, but clearly the student still wants to use him as a reference given the contact from the potential employer. – jakebeal Jan 4 '18 at 18:27
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    I've been contacted by potential employers about students who've not asked me to serve as a reference- I tell these employers that since the student hasn't asked me to be a reference (or at least until they do ask me), I won't talk to the employer. – Brian Borchers Jan 4 '18 at 18:38
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    @BrianBorchers I've heard that good hiring managers specifically seek out references who the applicant has not recommended, in order to get a more well-rounded impression of them. Of course, that probably applies more in a non-academic setting, but I wonder if in some of these cases the students didn't even expect you to be contacted. – David Z Jan 4 '18 at 20:22
  • @DavidZ That is a very bad idea. 1. It increases my workload as hiring manager tremendously (If I had time to do that, I would have time to do the job that the applicant is applying for.) 2. I did not go to a HBCU ... so I do not know the professors at HBCU ... in fact, let us auto-reject every applicant that did not go to the same university as I did and forget about all about diversity. – emory Jan 7 '18 at 14:29
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I would indicate that the student did not leave enough of an impression to remember him well after several years, and thus decline the discussion. That does indicate that the student was not the best, but does not point out any concrete flaws, staying almost neutral.

If the student did put your colleague on the list of references, even though he was told that he would not get the best recommendations, then I feel like he got into this on his own, and does not need to be gone easy on.

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I would suggest that your colleague discuss the situation with the university's general legal counsel, assuming such an office or officer exists.

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    You're putting too much stock in that legal counsel. – einpoklum Jan 5 '18 at 12:46
  • @einpoklum if legal counsel is 5th rate or better, they are going to say NO. – emory Jan 7 '18 at 14:31
  • @emory: If that's what you believe, you should add that to your answer... – einpoklum Jan 7 '18 at 14:56

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