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In the middle of the current semester, a student in my large lecture class (of an undergraduate course) asked me for a letter of recommendation, to supplement his application to transfer to another, much stronger, school. (In case this matters: this is in the U.S.)

He is one of the quiet students: while he doesn't actively participate, he doesn't cause any trouble either. So during that first half of the semester I didn't have any personal communication with him, and therefore I didn't really know him; I mean I didn't have anything to say about him as a person. But he attended class, and his first two midterm test grades were A (90+ numerically). So I told him that I agree to write the letter, but it would be short because I can only write what I know about him, which isn't much: I could only say that I've known him for half of the semester and that so far he has been performing really well. The student said it's fine. So I wrote and submitted a letter of recommendation.

This was a month ago. Fast forward to today, and by now he's like a totally different student: he's still quiet and doesn't cause any trouble, but he often skips classes, and his third midterm exam was an F (50 out of 100).

I know that it's not about me, and I don't take this personally. It may sound like he changed his ways as soon as he's gotten what he wanted from me, but that would be silly of me to assume. Probably it's just that he believes that he's already in the other school and doesn't care about this school anymore.

But my dilemma is that now I know that he is not the kind of student that I described in my letter and recommended to be accepted to the other school. By putting my name on the letter I effectively vouched for him and his ability to perform at a certain level. To me, it's as if I made a promise to the other university, but now I see that I misled them (albeit unintentionally).

Do you think it's a good idea to contact the other university and request that my letter of recommendation be retracted from his application package? Any thoughts or advice?

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    Have you spoken to him? Perhaps there's something in his personal life that led to this drop-off? – Azor Ahai Apr 23 at 22:17
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    Agree with @AzorAhai ; Life is not that much simple to conclude that " it's just that he believes that he's already in the other school and doesn't care about this school anymore". For example, in my country, even such an the application takes lots of paperwork that I wouldn't even be able to find enough time to sleep every night. – onurcanbektas Apr 24 at 4:17
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    Or maybe he lost his inspiration because the application was rejected. And maybe that's because your letter was not strong enough :p – Džuris Apr 24 at 7:46
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    Aside from any issues surrounding the recommendation (which I don't think you should retract), you've noticed a change in the student, and should probably approach the student to see if you can guide the student to resources for help. – Scott Seidman Apr 24 at 12:40
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    In the scheme of things, the letter is not as important as the well being of the student. In a conversation where you're setting yourself up as a potential advocate, bringing it up does not seem appropriate. – Scott Seidman Apr 24 at 15:35
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I think you should do nothing.

(Nothing with respect to the letter, that is. You may of course want to consider intervening with the student as you would with any other student whose performance suddenly drops off. As Azor Ahai says, he may be experiencing some sort of academic or non-academic problem.)

By putting my name on the letter I effectively vouched for him and his ability to perform at a certain level. To me, it's as if I made a promise to the other university, but now I see that I misled them (albeit unintentionally).

I don't see it that way. You couldn't possibly make promises about his future performance, and the receiving university will not have interpreted it that way. They are well aware that "past performance is no guarantee of future results". Provided you made an honest assessment based on what you knew at the time, your letter was in no way misleading, and you have no obligation to correct it.

Proactively sending a followup unrecommendation would come across as somewhat vindictive, and I think it's sort of an ethical gray area. The student consented to having you send a letter, sharing his academic progress, at a particular time; I think it's a little questionable whether that consent extends to having you send additional letters. (However, if the other university should contact you to ask about him, I do think it would be appropriate to give them an update on his more recent work - but to me that feels different.)

That said, I don't think the student is really likely to profit from this anyway:

  • Your initial letter, saying "I've known him for half a semester and so far he's doing fine in this one class", can't really have done much good for his application in the first place. If the other university is "much stronger", having such a letter, in place of a very positive letter from someone that knew him well, may have sunk his application from the outset.

  • If he does receive an offer of admission, it will almost certainly be contingent on continued satisfactory academic progress. The other university will review his final transcripts before he actually starts in the program. If he receives a poor grade in your class, they may very well revoke his admission. Indeed, discussing this possibility with the student may encourage him to shape up.

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    I don't agree that it is an ethical gray area. The student may assume incorrectly that there's some kind of threshold passed, but admissions can contact your recommenders and follow up any time if they want to. I don't see why the follow-up contact can't go other way. – A Simple Algorithm Apr 24 at 2:06
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    @JMac: I wouldn't guess that the professor gave the letter to the student; this would be very unusual in US academic culture. Here, letters are almost always sent directly to the destination university, and the student is expected to waive any rights they might have to read them. OP says "I wrote and submitted the letter", which I understand to mean "submitted it to the other university". And the wording "asked me for a letter of recommendation" is commonly used to mean "asked me to submit a letter of recommendation to the university". – Nate Eldredge Apr 24 at 13:12
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    @JMac: It is normal in this culture for the professor to tell the student, in broad terms, what they intend to write, but not to share with them the finished letter. However, I don't see this as a binding agreement, and it certainly doesn't override the professor's obligation to write an honest letter. For me, the issue is not really about whether the student expected specific content in the letter, but that the student consented to a one-time evaluation of their potential and not an indefinite ongoing reporting process. – Nate Eldredge Apr 24 at 13:25
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    To clarify: my conversation with the student about the letter was very short, and in my post I described pretty much all of it. It took all of a minute or so. Then the letter was submitted directly to the university, and the student hasn't seen it and has no access to it (waived his right to see the letter), as is typical in the U.S. academia. – zipirovich Apr 24 at 14:22
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    @JMac I'd describe the recommendation process as specifically designed to be "behind the student's back". You pick people you hope will write good ones. But they may not and are certainly not betraying any kind of trust if they include negative details in your letter. The recommender is not a tool for the student to use, or an advocate like a lawyer, they are an evaluator within the academic system to help others in the system make the best choice. – A Simple Algorithm Apr 24 at 16:43
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Based on your statements, all that you vouched for is the performance of the student at that point in time.

  • What confidence can you provide in the new behavior of the student being his "true" character (rather than a sign of an unknown external pressure)?

  • In what way would you retract your letter that will not cause you to appear as being vindictive?

  • What reason can you give to retract your letter that is not covered equally if not better by the outcome that this student is on track to earn a lower final course grade on his transcript?

With so many unknowns, your first instinct should not be to retract the letter.

  • When you care first to know why the behavior has changed, call the student for a visit and give him a chance to explain why.

  • When you care first not to be seen as vindictive, call the student for a visit, explain to him that you face such a decision, and give him the chance to defend himself.

  • When you want nothing less than a recognition that your letter then was only for his performance at that point in time, allow the student now his time to complete his own record of his performance past that point.

To conclude, this link from an article in Psychology Today Jan 2013 also provides background for my summary of the opening statement to relate current behavior as a predictor of future behavior. Other citations could likely be found branching from this.

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    I agree with Jeffrey on the point that the letter is referring to an evaluation of the student at that point in time. For instance, Ted Bundy was highly touted by the faculty at U Washington while he was a student there because he did good work, and that was a fair evaluation at that time. The faculty can't be faulted for not knowing that Bundy was actually a psychopath and would later become a serial killer. – ssjjaca Apr 23 at 23:23
  • @ssjjaca but in your rather extreme example, if you had recommended Bundy to become a nursing student somewhere and later learned he was a serial killer. While you may be legally covered if the worst happened and surprised you all. But the original topic here would imply you later knew the truth about Bundy but the school didn't, and faced the "dilemma" of whether to notify them of the update. Obviously there's no question what you'd need to do in that case. – A Simple Algorithm Apr 24 at 17:02
  • @ASimpleAlgorithm An example to your statement is that schools can and do withdraw degrees based on clear proof of academic misconduct to the requisite level even when that proof is found only after the degree was awarded. However, the counter argument here is, the OP has no proof of anything to justify any action; the OP has only inferences, speculation, and "hurt feelings" (as I would read between the lines). – Jeffrey J Weimer Apr 24 at 18:24
  • @ASimpleAlgorithm I do not think there is a legal question. You are free to write letters of reference for Bundy, Hitler, and other rogues without fear of legal consequence. – emory Apr 24 at 18:25
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    @einpoklum Not in academia. Students may need two references, and may have limited selection of vouchees. A reference which is limited to what the lecturer knows about a student is not as effective as a personalised one, but certainly not a general reference, unless it contains sentences which imply the latter. – Captain Emacs Apr 25 at 11:17
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A recommendation letter is/should as close as to your perception of the truth as possible as to the time of writing.

If you have sent it, retraction would be inappropriate (unless you got notice that the student achieved his marks by cheating).

Of course, a future recommendation letter may be not that brilliant, and you should let the student know that you'd rather not send another one if he asks you for it.

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    Exactly. The only reason to retract would be if the new circumstances, unknown to you at the time of writing would have come to light. Cheating is the good example. – xmp125a Apr 26 at 10:52
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Why not use this as a chance to open a conversation? "Hey, I noticed that you stopped participating after I wrote your recommendation letter. Is everything okay?"

  • This could be part of a good answer - one that advises against trying to retract the recommendation letter, and instead suggests focusing on ensuring the student is doing all right - but right now it doesn't answer the question at all, instead simply suggesting a different course of action with no explanation of why or how it will solve the problem. – V2Blast Apr 25 at 11:31
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Do you think it's a good idea to contact the other university and request that my letter of recommendation be retracted from his application package?

No. Because revoking a letter of recommendation suggests something extremely bad has occurred (as people very rarely do this AFAIK) - much worse than a student getting a couple of poor grades. More generally, unless you were misled into providing a letter, or if its contents is patently false (which is not the case with your letter) - I wouldn't even begin to consider acting to retract the letter.

Any thoughts or advice?

Yes. You should not have written a letter of recommendation for someone you don't know beyond a few numeric grades. Other than attesting that person has not misbehaved in class nor shown themselves to be incompetent - you can't really say anything meaningful about them. But a letter of recommendation says a lot. It imputes meaningful acquaintance with the recommended person. It suggests you know them and vouch for them, generally.

  • I disagree that the OP should not write a letter. If someone insists on writing a letter you can ALWAYS write one, as long as it is honest.If you know a student for few months and only his achievement you can vouch for is one midterm grade, then so be it. It won't be really very strong recommendation, but that is on recipient to judge. Etiquette dictates that you don't write letters that are not recommendations, but if someone would really pester me after refusing, I'd write the non-flattering one too. As long as you write the truth, it is ok. – xmp125a Apr 26 at 10:50
  • @xmp125a: You wrote "if you know a student for a few months" - fair enough. But you don't get to know someone by virtue of him/her sitting in your class saying nothing. – einpoklum Apr 26 at 11:01
  • This simply falls under "As long as you write the truth, it is ok". "To whomever it may concern, I know the mr. X from my lectures. He is always present, but did not ask any question and we had no verbal contact so far." As I said, it would be pretty bad recommendation letter, but if the person persists... – xmp125a May 14 at 22:20
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You should not retract the letter. If you wrote it honestly, it represents the accurate picture of the student at the time of writing. There is nothing wrong with it, except as someone noticed, it is not a very strong recommendation, but this is not your fault.

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You should not retract the letter because it is perfectly correct. It was at the of writing, and it still is. The facts did not change, because the date on the letter specifies up to which date it applies. Regarding it's effect, I see no reason they will or should not trust the letter. They can assume his behavior changed in correlation with the transition to another school, which is correct. Whether it is caused or at all related with the transition is not clear at all, it may be completely for independent reasons.

Independent of that, I could imagine that the change is caused by the transition, but completely fine: He may have no use for the grades and the actual content of the lecture, because he knows he will have more in depth lectures in he topic soon, or because he lost interest in the topic earlier, changes his topic, and is no longer forced to learn it anyway. He could be the "previous student" in the new school.

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