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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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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?


ADDENDUM

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.

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    The threat against the student should be surfaced immediately with the department chair. Likely they would allow you to take over as the advisor. Letting Steve hold a student hostage is not a good outcome for the department. – Jon Custer Oct 16 '18 at 17:12
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    @SolarMike Result: "Steve brought in a large grant once for the department. I wrote some papers with him and he gave me a bottle of $10 wine once. He usually can make it through a class without yelling the F-word. Steve has never killed a student." – Vladhagen Oct 16 '18 at 17:21
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    @JalapenoNachos A defamation of character lawsuit requires statements to be false. Stating "Steve was an incompetent instructor. His slides contained numerous errors and he missed nine class periods over the course of three months" is only defamatory if it is false. His attendance is a matter of record and many students could come forward to attest to this fact. – Vladhagen Oct 16 '18 at 18:09
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    The general rule is to refuse to write a letter if you cannot write a positive and honest one. Deviating from that rule makes the letter writer look bad too. And there is a chance that the subject will find out, either because they have a legal right to see the letter or because someone leaks to them that the letter was not good. So I think writing a weak or negative letter is an absolute last resort. Is there no excuse you can think of to explain why you cannot write a letter? – Thomas supports Monica Oct 16 '18 at 18:38
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    The chair probably took the right approach. If this is in the US, a search committee will read between the lines of a nominally positive letter and notice the selective omissions. – Elizabeth Henning Oct 16 '18 at 19:25
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There is quite a bit going on here.

First things first: you seem to suggest that it is a code of honor among academics to never write a weak or negative recommendation letter or to omit all weak points in a letter. I think that's too strong. Indeed, when people suggest declining to write letters, I think they are mostly thinking of letters for students of whom they do not have a strong opinion, rather than a clear, qualified negative opinion. I would say rather that you can write a letter for whomever you want, and omitting weak points that you feel are crucially relevant to the position being applied to is an ethical lapse.

In your case, you say that you have strong feelings and strong evidence that your colleague Steve should not get another tenure track job. Given that, I think the correct thing to do is to write a letter for him. In that letter, you should take extra care that your criticism be 100% factual. Indeed, I would mostly or entirely restrict yourself to reporting the facts. You should be able to trust a hiring committee to put the pieces together correctly.

As an aside: getting a tenure track job is a significant achievement in the current job market. Getting a tenure track job after being denied tenure is much harder still. The idea that Steve can get another tenure track job using letters from the department that denied him tenure boggles my mind. I think that's essentially impossible: any positive things said in such letters will have to be outweighed by the fact that the department as a whole denied him tenure! (Or possibly the department supported him and his tenure was denied at a higher level. Even so, it would be hard for department members to make a convincing case.) A nice letter from the chair about grant support is not going to cut it.

There are some other aspects to your question that I find more alarming.

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.

That's really horrible. It's so horrible that in my view if you know about that and are not doing anything about it, you become somewhat complicit. Can you not take this student as your own? I think you should (or find some other way to ensure the student lands on her feet).

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).

Indeed maybe you should not have collaborated with someone who is as uncooperative and immoral as you say Steve is. Some academic investments don't pay out. You don't need, and apparently don't want, to be held hostage to this person for the foreseeable future. It sounds like you have no guarantee that the work will come through successfully no matter what you do and that it very much depends on Steve's future career. I would seriously consider decoupling from him, even if that costs you a certain amount of academic work.

In summary: I suggest honesty all around while making extricating Steve's poor student from the situation as your top priority. Steve is trying to strongarm his student from a position of no power -- the university administration is not going to support him; on the contrary, they have already dimissed him! You should not pretend that you approve of Steve's actions. Neither should you try to "blacklist" him: just let the facts speak for themselves.

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    Out of curiosity, have you ever read an LOR that included clear negative opinions? Did you find them more or less credible than an LOR that noticeably omitted positive information which you would have expected to be included? – Elizabeth Henning Oct 16 '18 at 21:11
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    @Elizabeth: Yes, I have read LOR that included clear negative opinions. (Admittedly, they form a small percentage of the literally thousands of LORs I've read.) I don't see how to make a direct comparison in the sense you want, but I find the "omitting" letters to be annoyingly ambiguous: it is possible that the letter is just badly written and/or written by someone with different ideas than mine. I have sometimes followed up on letters of both types, by the way. – Pete L. Clark Oct 16 '18 at 22:30
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    I have read letters that were exceedingly short -- essentially "So and so has asked me to write a letter of evaluation for him. I have indeed worked for several years with him but do not wish to write about these interactions in more detail than is necessary. I wish him luck in his future endeavors." The point is that the letter says it all -- no more detail is necessary, I think I understand what the person wants to say. The only difficulty arises if there are other, positive letters and one has to resolve the difference. More detail would be useful in that context. – Wolfgang Bangerth Oct 16 '18 at 22:42
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    "Indeed maybe you should not have collaborated with someone who is as uncooperative and immoral as you say Steve is." Well, in hindsight, obviously not. But hindsight wasn't available at the time. – David Richerby Oct 16 '18 at 22:42
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    +1 for "making extricating Steve's poor student from the situation as your top priority" – Captain Emacs Oct 17 '18 at 0:12
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First off, I would get some kind of documentation of him threatening to prevent the Student from defending her dissertation. Either capture an e-mail he sent to the student, or get some kind of recording of the conversation. That is a unconscionable course of action. Your department chair should be able to tell you what they can do for the student to help secure their future.

I've had similar problems in the past where coworkers asked me for letters that I could not in good conscience provide. My method was to provide a full copy of the letter to the coworker first, before sending it to anyone. Then, I told them to their face "This is the letter that I wrote. You can decide for yourself if this is what you would like submitted on your behalf, or if you'd like to ask someone else." This method would avoid Steve having any defamation case, since he has consented to the "publishing" (giving it to anyone) of the piece. However, make sure to be fair. List his positive qualities (like being very good at getting grants) also.

In fact, I follow this practice for all of my letters of recommendation. I don't like talking about people behind their backs, good or bad. Also, since this you mentioned the "revenge" aspect in your edit, I will also say that delivering not-so-glowing recommendations to someone's face is pretty satisfying.

As for your collaborative work, I would avoid the sunk-cost fallacy. I would be wary of the fact that Steve is clearly already not well thought-of at your institution, and I wouldn't want to put my name on a collaborative work with someone like that regardless. If he does end up job hopping to other institutions, it becomes pretty likely that he won't be well thought of in those places as well, and having your name on a work with someone like that could harm your reputation more than help it. The same is true of the student.

  • If you have a copy of a threatening email, should such exist, what would prevent you from adding it to the LOR? – Alexander Oct 18 '18 at 6:45
  • While I agree that coauthoring with people who do not have the respect of the community is inadvisable for a faculty member, I don't think "the same is true of the student." We have had other questions on here about whether an advisor's negative actions cast a shadow on a student's work, and the general consensus was that academia knows that students have very limited power in these situations. – Dawn Oct 18 '18 at 21:21
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This turned out to be too big of a comment, so I post it as an answer.

It seems like you should cut your losses. As Pete L. Clark's (great) answer says, not all investments work out in the end. If you're already tenured this should be fine.

The really worrying aspect of the situation is the grad student's situation. If it comes to it, wouldn't it be possible to compensate the hypothetical lack of publications with a strong letter of recommendation for her, explaining why these publication weren't submitted? You're probably the only person with power who knows about the situation. Help her.

As a final note I'd like to mention that another important thing to take into account is that Steve is not the only one with bargaining chips here. Withholding these publications will certainly affect his possibilities of getting a new job in academia.

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    Withholding these publications will certainly affect his possibilities of getting a new job in academia. Honestly, it sounds like Steve's possibilities are limited. – Thomas supports Monica Oct 17 '18 at 0:05
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    @Thomas I'm not so sure about that, he can always try to move to a lower tier university. Also, I don't think he would apply for other positions if he thought he couldn't. That's why I just added it as a final comment, since that's where the situation gets more complicated: sure, a desperate person with "nothing to lose" might do horrible things, but it's a spectrum of possibilities. – user347489 Oct 17 '18 at 0:16
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    It's not uncommon for people who are good at selling and networking to repeatedly land jobs they aren't qualified for. Steve, with his "strong ability to obtain grants" might very well fall into this category. – Ruther Rendommeleigh Oct 17 '18 at 8:54

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