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I've recently been asked to write a letter of recommendation for tenure and promotion for my former advisor from graduate school. This is for a potential promotion/tenure a few years down the line.

My time in grad school was one of the darkest periods of my life. My former advisor was verbally abusive, demanding, and insulting. The way they treated me, and the stress that came with it, led to severe problems with anxiety and depression to the point where I became suicidal. I'm also not the only student who's had these kind of problems with them: I know of at least one other student who's had serious mental health problems due to their experiences as their graduate student under the same professor.

The problem is I'm still potentially reliant on my former advisor. I'm now working full-time outside academia, and I'm applying for employment-based permanent residency in the United States. One of the requirements for that is a set of experience letters from a few previous employers or professors that states what skills you're bringing to the job (to justify why the company is hiring you instead of an American). This is a signed letter saying something like:

This person was a student of mine from date A to date B, I have direct personal knowledge of their work, they took courses on X, Y, and Z topics, and demonstrated skills A, B, and C through the course of their research/work.

This advisor has already refused to sign such a letter for another student who left the lab on bad terms after standing up to the abuse.

Without permanent residency, I'd be forced to leave the country in the coming years when my work visa expires. I've spent long enough here that my entire life is here, and so anything that could potentially put it in jeopardy makes me extremely cautious.

The request states that my letter will be kept confidential, but my former advisor has supervised relatively few students overall. My understanding is that any points I bring up in my letter will be discussed with them as part of their review process, and so there's a good chance they'll know it was me.

I see three possible options:

  1. Write the letter honestly, holding them accountable for their actions, but leaving myself open to the risk that they'll know I wrote something negative and retaliate by refusing to cooperate with my immigration process.
  2. Politely decline to write the letter, which doesn't hold them accountable, and could still cause them to refuse when I ask them for the favour of signing the experience letter.
  3. Grit my teeth and write something reasonably neutral in the letter, letting them potentially go on to harm more students in the future.

None of these are good options, and I'm not sure what the best course of action here is.

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    Will you be able to muster letters from past employers/professors other than the toxic one? – Aaron Brick Feb 19 at 7:31
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    Are you working with a lawyer on your permanent residency application? Consider asking them if the letter can come from the department chair/dean/graduate program chair/etc instead of from the abusive professor. IANAL but I have a hard time believing that the legal requirements cannot be satisfied without relying on the charity of a single unstable, toxic individual (or one individual of any kind; surely some allowance must be made for people falling ill, dying, changing workplaces and not answering their old email address, etc.?) – Dan Romik Feb 19 at 8:48
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    Are you as reliant on your former advisor as you think? I do not see that a green card application strictly requires letters of recommendation, e.g.: uscis.gov/working-united-states/permanent-workers/… – perenniallydisappointed Feb 19 at 10:44
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    I agree with the other comments: while your former advisor would have been a natural choice to write this letter for you if your relationship with them had been healthy and solid, because it isn't they are a particularly poor choice. Attesting that you have certain skills as evidenced through taking certain courses and completing a PhD program can be done by other faculty members in your department, surely. – Pete L. Clark Feb 19 at 13:54
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    I am working my employer’s lawyers on this and have my own independent lawyer that I can consult with if need be. It’s true that the letters aren’t strictly required, but they are generally a part of the complete documentation package. I’m not entirely sure of the likely consequences of missing one, but I suspect I’d be risking further complications or additional scrutiny. Getting another person in the department to sign the letter is an option I’m considering, but usually the letters involve asking the person to certify that they supervised you and had direct experience with your work. – AnonymousFormerStudent12345 Feb 20 at 3:31
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It seems that your core issue is that you've got three different things tangled up into one mess:

  • You want a letter from your former advisor to support your immigration process.
  • Your former advisor was abusive.
  • Someone is asking you to write a letter supporting your former advisor's promotion.

Personally, I don't think any of the three options you presented in your question are complete in terms of addressing each of these three things appropriately. You may be better served to separate the three and conquer them individually.

  • Determine if you have other sources for a recommendation, besides your advisor. Perhaps the letter could come from a department head or another professor.
  • Decline the request to write a letter recommending your former advisor. Whomever is asking will likely get the message. You certainly don't want to actually write a positive letter, and a letter of recommendation is not the ideal channel for dealing with abuse. Further, it would be legitimate to indicate that you don't feel comfortable writing a letter of recommendation, since you are still (indirectly) dependent on this professor writing a letter recommending you, and hence there is a conflict of interest. Which leads to,
  • Follow up with the dean of academic affairs, department head, or other appropriate authority within your university in terms of reporting the abuse you suffered.
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Get your former advisor to sign the letter now.

After that has succeeded or failed, you should contact the person who runs this process and ask them verbally how the letter will be used and what it contains. Probably this is a dean. Probably the dean already knows about your advisor's behavior. They might be seeking a letter that will help them get rid of your former advisor. At well-run universities, these letters are not requested from random students. They come from known students.

You should write an honest letter.

There is an option you do not mention: You can "damn with faint praise." This is done by writing a letter which says nice things about a person, but none of the nice things are relevant to the person's job. E.g. They are funny and well-dressed. I don't recommend this but it is available to you. If done carefully, it can prevent promotion while giving the illusion that you intended to help the advisor.

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    That last paragraph of yours is hideously insidious. +1 – João Mendes Feb 19 at 15:43
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    @JoãoMendes I've seen that recommendation before in multiple places for reference letters as a way of preventing retaliation via accusations of libel – anjama Feb 19 at 16:53
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    Why is it not an option to decline mentioning a conflict of interest? That in itself should be a red flag, but none that the former advisor will be able to trace. – FooBar Feb 20 at 10:26
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    Heh heh. Final paragraph. "Cannot recommend him too highly." – puppetsock Feb 20 at 14:56
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    They all likely could use a letter of some kind for an important purpose, but stating a conflict of interest is tantamount to an admission of guilt such as pleading the fifth. The jury will be asked to ignore that fact but they will not, because they are human, same as this professor who is this OP's sole meal ticket. A 'mistrial' would mean deportation. Not that it's ontopic, nor could there be a worse site to ask this to get a straight answer, but the green card is the only part of this question that is relevant. – Mazura Feb 21 at 2:21
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I read this with interest bc I had the same experience and felt the same way with one of my advisers who also happened to teach several of the classes for the program I was in. I was going to be a teacher and he made it so miserable that, while I finished the program, I decided not to pursue teaching. I had one last requirement, to create a personal portfolio to have when I interviewed for jobs, and he wanted to abuse me one more time so kept making me jump through ridiculous hoops. I finally refused any more abuse, so he refused to officially sign off that I completed the program and the University wouldn't help me bc he was tenured and untouchable. (They agreed with my concerns!) It's 10 years later and I still have this unresolved thing I have to explain when pursuing new employment.

If you contribute to his/her tenure, it will only embolden them to mistreat students even more and it could be life-changing for many of them. I suggest you follow some of the great advice above that leads to a path that you don't support the tenure while still ensuring your needs are taken care of.

Postscript: A few years after I moved on with my life, I heard my adviser died. Maybe you'll get lucky...sounds cold but when people are this despicable, they don't deserve kindness even after they leave this world.

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Another option which may or may not be available to you would be to see if you can find an appropriate contact for whoever will be reviewing the letters or running the overall evaluation process and explain your conflict of interest and fear of possible repercussions, and ask if there is some way you can provide additional feedback "off the record" (even if they do not accept "off the record" input, the mere fact that you expressed a desire for it may give them reason to investigate further).

Alternately (or additionally), if you know of other people who have had similar experiences with the professor (such as the other student you mentioned who left on bad terms) but have not been asked to write recommendations, you could let them know about the reviewers' contact information, and encourage them to reach out to them and offer their own input, separately from whatever you submit.

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This is a tough situation.

You should not write a dishonest letter. That will make you look bad and, if it helps the professor abuse more students, then that should rest on your conscience.

You say the letter will be kept confidential, but obviously that may not be entirely true. The professor will get some feedback about it -- at the very least he will learn whether or not he got the promotion. Depending on local laws, he may have a legal right to access the letter.

Given this, I would, in your situation, either decline or write a perfunctory letter -- something which does not say anything false, but also doesn't say much at all. I think that will get enough of a message across.

In terms of your PERM, you should talk to your employer's immigration lawyers to see if someone else can sign the letter. Perhaps that's nonstandard, but, if I were you, I wouldn't want an abusive former advisor involved with immigration at all.

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