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I am applying for a tenure-track position in a university located in California. While sending the auto-request emails to my recommenders, I just noted that the following information is automatically attached to each request email:

Please read the University of California's confidentiality policy regarding external letters of reference.

Although a candidate may request to see the contents of letters of evaluation in accordance with California law and University policy, your identity will be held in confidence. The material made available will exclude the letterhead, the signature block, and material below the signature block. Therefore, material that would identify you, particularly information about your relationship to the candidate, should be placed below the signature block. In any legal proceeding or other situation in which the source of confidential information is sought, the University does its utmost to protect the identity of such sources.

In this regard:

1- If I request to see the contents of the letters, will my recommenders be informed by the university regarding my request?

2- When may I raise such a request (for example, any time after the submission, or after the delivery of letters, or ...)?

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    Not the DVer, but frankly you just don't want to ask to see the letters. Notifying the recommenders would be a question for the specific university policy. And there likely is a last date to request, since many places will have a defined retention time for such material. But, again, why would you want to go there?
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 17, 2021 at 0:02
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    I beg to differ - I question the utility of such a request. Since policy seems to allow the request, there is no doubt about the ethics/morality/legality of said request. More bluntly, if you want to know what your recommendation letters say, have a heart-to-heart discussion with those doing the recommending. If I found out somebody requested my letter and never spoke to me about it, well, they would never get a letter again.
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 17, 2021 at 0:14
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    "Since policy seems to allow the request, there is no doubt about the ethics/morality/legality of said request." - Not sure that follows. In the first place, there are indeed illegal policies, but even assuming that the UC policy is legal, ethics and morality are quite different issues. I don't know the answer to OP's questions, but I upvoted because I think they are interesting. Nov 17, 2021 at 0:35
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    So you would assume a not-stellar recommendation is your advisor’s?
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 17, 2021 at 1:08
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    @JonCuster speaking of ethics and morality, I’m curious, why would you want to retaliate against someone for requesting a document pursuant to a legal right that they have? Why should they be required to have a heart to heart talk with you to avoid such retaliation? I’d suggest that if you are really concerned about them exercising their legal rights in this way, the ethical thing to do is to refuse to write the letter in the first place and explain that this is because you find the UC’s policy unconscionable.
    – Dan Romik
    Nov 17, 2021 at 4:57

2 Answers 2

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I’m a current faculty member and former department chair at a UC campus, and somewhat familiar with these policies. Here’s my “insider’s” take: it is not in the University of California’s interest, nor in the interest of other job candidates, nor even in your own interest (although you might disagree about that), for the answer to your questions to be publicly known and easily accessible online.

It’s not really a great mystery however. If you email a representative of the campus you’re applying to, I’m reasonably confident they will give you a straightforward answer.

Also, please don’t rely on speculation from people who do not have specific, accurate information related to what you’re asking about. The information posted so far on this page is largely inaccurate.

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  • Your recommendation in the second paragraph may not work because if I anonymously ask such questions, it is quite unlikely that they take them into account. On the other hand, I would not like to reveal my identity (thereby, asking as a known applicant) because I don't know whether or not they (sooner or later) inform my recommenders about my questions. Put differently, the answer to my first question is critical in that whether I can safely contact the intended campus using my name.
    – user41207
    Nov 17, 2021 at 4:35
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    @User you may be able to obtain this information in other ways that don’t involve posting on a public forum. But as for emailing with questions, I can’t imagine anyone on the receiving end of such an email thinking it’s appropriate to gossip about it with your letter writers, or with anyone else for that matter. Even in the unlikely event that they did that, your question is a completely legitimate one about university policy and the disclaimer text you saw appended to the email to the letter writers. I don’t see how asking about this is anything to be ashamed of. Well, good luck in any case.
    – Dan Romik
    Nov 17, 2021 at 4:51
  • Overall, thanks for the hints.
    – user41207
    Nov 17, 2021 at 5:01
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IANAL but I assume that the text is in accordance with a FOIA style law. If so, then anyone can FOIA the external letters of reference in support of your application. The university has identified the parts of the letter which it will provide and which it will not provide in response to FOIA queries.

FOIA requests are themselves government records and can be FOIAed. If your referees want to know if you requested their reference letters then they can FOIA that. This would require them to continually poll the University with FOIA requests because if your FOIA request was received after their request then your request would not be included in the response to their request.

If the University has a policy of notifying referees about such requests (relieving them of the need to poll) then it is almost certainly written down somewhere and you can FOIA that. However, policy can change at any time. So maybe you would need to similarly poll the university.

If you do FOIA their notification policy and determine they do not notify references and then FOIA their references you can never be certain that (1) your referees will not FOIA your requests (but you could FOIA their requests about your requests); or (2) the university will not change its policy - and they could even change it retroactively.

It is fun to think of some of the absolute absurdities involved (e.g., you could FOIA for FOIA requests about your reference to determine if your referee has learned that you have learned what they wrote about you) but I recommend that instead

  1. Use referees that you are positive will provide a glowing reference.
  2. If you want to read the reference, discuss this with your referee ahead of time.

There is no right or wrong answer to the question of whether references should be confidential, but there is a right and wrong answer to the question of should you solicit a reference from someone which you have a combative relationship with.

TLDR

  1. They might be informed. The university has not promised you confidentiality.
  2. You can request at any time. However, I would put off that request until such that as your tenure application has been denied. Just as the university has not promised you confidentiality it has not promised to consider the request negatively against you.

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