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A couple of months ago, I submitted a positive recommendation letter for one of my students for a master's program, and she got accepted by the university. However, after my submission, I've noticed unethical behavior from her side – cheating at an exam –, and violation of the university’s code of ethics – insulting one of her professors.

My questions are:

  • Should I change my positive letter to a negative one?
  • If I did this, what impact is it likely to have?

My inclination to send the negative letter is motivated by my strivings to be clear and honest with my colleagues, and provide authentic and true information.

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    ""I have noticed" sounds like "I do not have proof of". See @Anton's answer.
    – einpoklum
    Jun 3 at 21:11
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    I recommend completely setting aside the issue of her insulting one of her professors. That professor can decide how to deal with that—it's not your place to do so—and people in positions of power can handle the occasional insult by someone they have power over. Jun 5 at 18:53
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    It's impossible to evaluate the answers to this question in terms of how well they fit your situation if you can't tell us how you "noticed" this "unethical behavior". Have the facts been established by a legitimate institutional or legal process? Or are they just your opinions based on hearsay? I would tread very carefully here, since if you write something unsubstantiated to harm your student, not only have you acted unethically, but you make even have committed actionable libel. Jun 5 at 19:00
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    Why not turn that round and Ask instead whether you should ignore unethical behavior from her side - cheating at an exam, and violation of University's code of ethics - insulting one of her professors? Jun 5 at 21:17

8 Answers 8

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As a general rule, if you send a letter stating that you believe a fact X to be true, and later get new information causing you to no longer believe what you previously wrote, it is completely ethical and reasonable to inform the recipient of the letter of this change in your beliefs.* After all, you not only have an ethical obligation to the student, but you also have an ethical obligation to the Master’s program to not mislead them about who they are admitting into their ranks.

It is also in most cases ethical and reasonable to do nothing, since the original letter you sent is dated, so it is implied that you are only stating that at date Y, you believed fact X to be true. This says nothing about what you will believe in the future, and indeed, in the context of LORs, most people will have a reasonable expectation that your opinions about the person you are writing the letter for will change over time. So I don’t think you will be compromising your integrity by failing to update the letter. (If the update was meant to correct facts you stated in sworn testimony to the US Congress though, the calculation could be different.)

The bottom line is, I don’t think there’s an objectively correct way to proceed here. It’s a personal decision, and I’m not even sure what I would do in your situation. It would probably depend to some extent on the severity of the cheating incident and what I felt it says about the student’s future prospects to succeed in her graduate studies. For a relatively minor incident, I would probably let it go.

* For the current LOR context though, you will want to make sure that you are not breaking any laws or university policies related to protecting the student’s privacy by discussing her cheating incident.

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    Hearsay about cheating, or hearsay about anything else, is not the best basis for any action... Jun 3 at 18:06
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    @paulgarrett neither I nor OP said anything about hearsay. To clarify, I am assuming that whatever OP writes in any letters are things whose factual correctness they can stand behind. If this is not the case, then yes, I agree that gossip/hearsay should not be a basis for action.
    – Dan Romik
    Jun 3 at 18:09
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    Sorry, I was unclear. What I meant was that hearing about bad behavior is not witnessing it first-hand, ... and, in my opinion, letters of recommendation should best/only refer to first-hand information. Even references to grades in other courses is irrelevant, since the transcripts show them! That kind of thing... Jun 3 at 18:12
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    @cag51 that’s interesting. A related thing I’ve noticed is that academia.se answers that express doubt or uncertainty tend to receive fewer upvotes than ones that give strong, actionable advice like “do this!” And yet, for my part I often feel it’s downright irresponsible to offer that sort of advice, and the best I can do is say “I’m not sure”. If people find that unhelpful or disappointing, so be it.
    – Dan Romik
    Jun 3 at 23:15
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    @DanRomik: Well, you've bucked the trend with this excellent "I'm not sure" answer (+1).
    – Ben
    Jun 4 at 5:15
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You cannot ethically change your recommendation without first discussing it with the student. So, if you decide to make a change, please arrange to talk with the student.

The student presumably has or will pay the appropriate penalty at your institution. Unless that penalty is academic dismissal, the student has presumably paid for her mistake, or will do so. (She has paid if dismissed, too, but that suggests an incident so egregious that you might feel obligated to take action on the recommendation.)

An unrepentant cheater will cheat again, and get caught again, at the new institution.

Her offense may appear on her transcript, which may be seen by the other institution. (Some institutions request a transcript at decision time and also after the completion of the student's current term.)

My advice: Do nothing unless the cheating incident was so egregious that you feel compelled to intervene. Note that you still have to have that discussion with the student if you decide to intervene, regardless of the reason for intervening.

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    You cannot ethically change your recommendation without first discussing it with the student. Hmm, what ethical principle exactly is at play here? I mean, the student didn’t exactly “discuss” her intention to cheat with her letter writer prior to taking this ethically compromising action. I’m not necessarily advocating changing the letter, but I don’t see why OP should be ethically bound to have any discussions with the student.
    – Dan Romik
    Jun 3 at 16:58
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    @DanRomik OP and student reached a possibly unspoken understanding that the recommendation would be a supportive one. Changing the recommendation undoes that understanding. At a minimum OP should inform the student. I believe it would be far better to have that "discussion" and give the student an opportunity to express contrition if indeed she would.
    – Bob Brown
    Jun 3 at 17:35
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    As a practical suggestion, I don’t disagree that this may be a good idea, but I think framing it as some kind of ethical imperative is going too far. It is clearly the student who, in choosing to cheat, first broke whatever “unspoken understanding” she had with OP pertaining to the letter and what it will/should contain. IMO this frees OP from whatever ethical obligation they had (assuming they even had one in the first place, which also does not seem obvious to me) to discuss the content of the letter with the student.
    – Dan Romik
    Jun 3 at 17:39
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    @BobBrown Does not the student and their professor also have an unspoken understanding, that the recommendation only applies if the students behavior does not significantlly change? Is it really a one way street? Jun 3 at 21:39
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    It would certainly be permissible to withdraw your letter of support. Arguably, in the EU the student might have a right to be forgotten, and the OP shouldn't give the other university information about her which she hasn't permitted the OP to give. If the other university considered the OP's recommendation in accepting the student, then that university will reverse their decision unless the student can find another recommendation, which they likely can't.
    – user7868
    Jun 6 at 5:13
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Sending a negative letter would put the student at an unfair disadvantage because students strive to have the most positive letters of recommendation that they can have. If you no longer hold a positive opinion, you are not among the professors that should provide recommendations for this student. No one is supposed to have a LOR from a professor that holds a bad opinion on them.

If you feel you can't stand behind your letter anymore, you may withdraw it. But it would be unprofessional and even petty to go into any details why you stopped supporting this student. And you should also take into account that the student might find it out ("Prof. Sane withdrew their LOR, you need another one."), so maybe it's best and most fair if you notify the student straight away as well.

The withdrawal could be as simple as

Hello, Admission board. I wish to withdraw my letter of recommendation for Student. I've also notified Student that I'm withdrawing the recommendation.

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  • I think this is the most fair and even-handed way to address a situation like described in the original post. I would definitely notify the student as well. Jun 6 at 20:34
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You wrote the personal recommendation in good faith on the evidence available to you at the time you wrote. A decision was taken on her master's course. It seems unethical to seek to later modify such opinions and the decision on the basis of new personal experience; where would such a process stop?

Only if there was formal recorded institutional action taken against cheating, and only if that action nullified the grounds of admission to the masters' program might you have cause to notify the accepting institution of the false premises on which it had admitted the student to the masters' program.

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    Why should such a process stop? It seems reasonable that the letter-writer should be able to update (or withdraw) his letter as long as people are still relying on it to make their decisions.
    – cjs
    Jun 5 at 11:35
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Suppose you sent her transcript to the other university, then later discovered that she had broken into the registrar's server and changed her grades. The correct action in such a case would obviously be to inform the university that the records sent were incorrect (and that the student was the one responsible for falsifying them).

Grades are meant to represent the student's knowledge. By cheating, she effectively tricked the grader into entering an incorrect grade into the system. The mechanism by which the grade was falsified differs between the two scenarios, but in both cases, the student knowingly caused a grade that does not reflect her ability to be placed in the system.

Assuming that the letter of recommendation was based in part on class performance, it was inaccurate, and for the same reason the transcript was. The other university should be informed of this.

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  • I tend to agree, but let's not forget that university are not institutions preserving knowledge: universities are quite often very powerful money machine. Should a professor be updated on every informatic intrusion in the uni's servers, or should the university be responsible of providing grades about a certain student whenever asked? The amount of work universities performs for the money they recieve is almost negligible. And then professor are even required to integrate universities fundings from external sources!
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 3 at 21:19
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First, academia is based around the search for and discovery of truth. This often requires changing positions and conclusions to fit new observations, no matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient that may be. That should be your guiding principle in everything you do as an academic.

To answer your first question, if you had submitted a research paper that drew conclusions based on data you later learned to be faulty, would you submit a retraction? I would hope so, as you now know the conclusion to be unsupported by the data, and to continue to allow people to make decisions as if it were would be unethical. You have a duty to correct that misinformation.

As for your second question, it is irrelevant. You do not have a responsibility to ensure the success of her academic or professional career, only her instruction and the development as a student. The academic dishonesty this student has shown in cheating ultimately calls into question their entire body of work (falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus), including that which you based her recommendation on. Allowing the institution they have been admitted to to operate under the assumption that they have legitimately demonstrated themselves academically and should be admitted rewards that dishonesty and will only serve to deny them accountability and stunt their personal growth. Your student is the one who engaged in unethical behavior, and the consequences are theirs to deal with. They are responsible for their own success, academically and professionally, and if this negatively impacts this, it is of their own doing, not yours.

Your desire to be clear and honest with your colleagues is exemplary and the correct course for many reasons. If you were in their position, you would expect the same candidness and truthfulness. Your reputation is also at stake. If they later observed such behavior from this student, they may call your judgement into question. If they were to learn that you knew of this behavior and maintained your positive recommendation at their expense, I would expect them to question your judgement as well as your character. Lastly, whatever program this student was admitted to likely has limited room, and their admission comes at another student's expense. Failing to inform your colleagues about this behavior and inform their decision making may potentially deny a more deserving student this opportunity.

As for your actions moving forward, the best course of action in my opinion is to contact the university she has been admitted to and explain the situation, as well as explain your position and actions to the student. If you still believe they should be admitted to the institution and the behavior you have recently learned about is an aberration that is not indicative of their entire body of work or their character, then let them know. You can maintain a positive recommendation while still being frank and honest. If you no longer believe this student should be admitted into the university based on their actions, then change your recommendation. The pursuit of Knowledge never benefits from the obfuscation of the truth to fit personal or political agendas, and taking a course of action based on the convenience of the ramifications does no one any good in the long run. In short, be truthful because that is where your ultimate duty lies.

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Should I change my submitted recommendation letter due to the student's unethical behavior?

No.

  1. Because once sent, you can't change a submitted recommendation letter. You can write a second letter, but no party has solicited such a letter, and receiving institution may not even have a mechanism to deal with "errata" in recommendation letters appropriately. They asked for a snapshot with a timestamp and you provided it.
  2. Drawing outside the lines and trying to do other people's job (evaluating the student for the program) no matter how well-intentioned can lead to unexpected consequences, perhaps even to you. If the student learns of multiple letters, might they perceive potential harm to their future and take academic or legal action?
  3. Where does it end? What if you learn more? Should you send a third letter? A fourth? What if you discover your new view is incomplete and/or nuanced in such a way that you regret your second letter? Will saying "Oh please ignore letter B and go with letter A"? Will they just toss all your letters?

If the letter was honest, correct and valid on the day on which it is dated, your responsibilities were completed.

By getting in the driver's seat and trying to manage or steer the repercussions of the students new actions in a certain way I think you're going down a rabbit hole of unpredictable outcomes that might even come back to bite you.

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    The second letter is just a correction of the first. But I understand your caution unless it's a serious academic or character issue. I don't understand how you can offer the - even legalistically specious - excuse that it was correct on the day and ignore an obligation to correct for serious new information. Otherwise it's likely to boomerang back onto the not only the letter author's reputation but also to his Department and even university. For sure it will affect inter-university relations if it's serious and comes to knowledge of the new university. All depends on the student offences.
    – Trunk
    Jun 4 at 21:47
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    @Trunk No, not a correction. What the OP asks is "Should I change my positive letter to a negative one?" It would be a new letter with not only new information but a different conclusion. Presumably the original letter did not say explicitly that the student had a high degree of ethics and would never cheat on tests. Calling it a correction is misdirection. "For sure it will affect inter-university relations." Really doubtful, an entire university does not stake its reputation on every recommendation letter written for every undergraduate applying to a master's program.
    – uhoh
    Jun 4 at 22:14
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    @Trunk Imagine the answers that would be posted if I asked a new question here, something like "I am afraid to write a letter of recommendation for a student applying to a Masters program because there might be some things I don't yet know about them and my university's reputation is at stake" The student asked for a letter based on what the prof knew, and they did so, and the Master's program will receive it as exactly that, no more, no less. It's not supposed to be an ongoing investigation with no end.
    – uhoh
    Jun 4 at 22:17
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    "But I think it is fair to expect an academic referee to review the student's full academic record," Really? 1) doesn't that run headlong into privacy concerns? 2) Is it fair to expect a letter writer to look into the future? The reality is that at the level of application to a Masters program letters are scoped on what the writer happens to know at the time of writing.
    – uhoh
    Jun 5 at 15:33
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    @uhoh Recall that the professor is providing an academic referee's reference. i.e. on the student's professional grades, effort and general student character. The latter should not include harmless pranks like being in a college lake nude after final exams. But it should include (where known) things like cheating, damage to uni property, verbal abuse to staff and things like that. To omit these things when they are known or to fail to update/rewrite a prior letter of recommendation is unethical in my view. At least I would object if a student recommended to me had a bad character record.
    – Trunk
    Jun 5 at 18:24
-1

Carl Gustav Jung once said that "If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself"

Should I change my positive letter to a negative one?

no, try to give her a "second chance" . if the student behaviour will not improve in future , then she definitely face difficulties in her college and life as well.

Person nature are changes by time.

As from your paragraph , the same person becomes good and bad at different times so you can't claim that She is absolutely bad or good so i think you should give him second chance.

If I did this, what impact is it likely to have?

If you do this then She may feel that whatever I do , my teachers , professor and friends are still supporting me and after observing such things , she may think to change his behaviour.

If in case , she not Change with time then Life is very strict teacher , that will teach her in nice way.

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