A colleague of mine has asked that I write him a letter of recommendation (LOR). I will call him Steve. He recently was denied tenure and is looking for a new position at several other universities. Steve is currently a co-author on three papers I am trying to publish. He has been extremely difficult to work with on these papers. (There is a reason he is being denied tenure. Everything is a battle with him). I am not in good conscience able to write a strong LOR for Steve. I am not even in good conscience able to write a LOR for him at all. I am of the opinion that he should never hold another faculty position again.
There are a few questions on this site, such as this one, that suggest that I should tell Steve that I cannot write him a strong letter of recommendation. However, Steve also funded a graduate student that worked with us on all three of the aforementioned papers, so there is money and a fledgling student involved, not to mention my own publications. There are two concerns that I thus have:
By declining to write Steve a LOR, I fear that he will refuse to cooperate on the pending publications we have. (And he has not exactly been cooperative to begin with. Again, there is a reason he is being dismissed). This would obviously affect my publications that I have worked on for the past two years. (I regret even getting tangled up with Steve. But that's a discussion for a different day). Moreover, it would be rather unfortunate for the graduate student Steve oversaw if these publications are held hostage or squashed. This graduate student is deserving of these publications and her career could be quite negatively affected by not getting these papers published. Steve has already informed this student that if she does not comply with helping him obtain a new position, he will not allow her to defend her dissertation in a few months.
By declining to write a LOR for Steve, I also feel that I am declining to provide the search committees at Steve's potential employers valuable insight into what he will be like as a faculty member. I personally would be rather frustrated if I was on a search committee and was denied important information on the temperament and capabilities of a candidate because no one wanted to speak ill of an incorrigible and manipulative colleague. I would also feel rather angry if I was an applicant to one of Steve's potential employers and was passed over because no one dared write a negative letter about a weak candidate. Unlike the case of declining to write a letter for a weak student, allowing a potential faculty member to obscure his actions as a professor can have a much larger impact in my opinion. (Poor students fail out and are dismissed from the program; poor professors dodge and scramble, all the while affecting their students and colleagues).
I am uniquely equipped in my department to write at length about Steve's capabilities as a faculty member. I have done by far the most work with him out of any of the faculty. Steve already has a letter of recommendation from our department chair that expresses Steve's strong ability to obtain grants (one of his few positive capabilities). Steve likely could find one or two other faculty members to write him positive letters (even if they have to stretch the truth in order to save face before Steve). He obtained such letters for his intermediate review (done 3-4 years before applying for tenure as a means of gauging if a potential tenure candidate is progressing on the path). Because no one wanted to step up and write Steve a letter of reservation (i.e. "I have reservations about this candidate"), he continued to do the things that ended up leading to him being denied tenure. It cost the department time and money, as well as engendered a distrust of our department among the university administration.
With these two thoughts in mind, should I decline to write Steve a letter of recommendation?
I will admit that there is potential for a revenge factor here. I also feel that it is important that actions such as Steve's not be perpetuated. I am able to provide concrete examples and commentary on his fitness for a faculty position and would refrain from ad hominem attacks.
Because the LOR process would be kept private, I feel that I would have enough time to still submit each of the three publications Steve and I co-authored before Steve could possibly find out I had essentially blacklisted him. All three papers are in their final "submission-ready" format. We are literally just waiting for Steve to finish applying for new positions so that he can give the final submission approval as an author.
I have spoken with department administration about Steve's student. They are considering what to do in terms of interventions.
To address the people worried about litigation for defamation: I am not excessively worried about losing a defamation case. Campus police records, written statements by multiple graduate students, previously recorded statements by faculty, email records--all are likely admissible in court. I would be able to satisfy the onus probandi requisite for defeating a defamation case (in my opinion). In a prior life, I worked as counsel for a large school district. My specialty: Employment law. This includes defending the district against employees and students who claim they were "defamed" by negative reviews/termination. While perhaps warranted in general, I am ultimately not looking for legal advice on this matter. I have an attorney on retainer and understand basic tort law.