I've been contacted by email by another professor at a different institution, who is assessing a student for graduate school entry, for an informal opinion about the student's suitability. The student hasn't asked me directly for a recommendation or similar.

Is it ethical for me to provide that informal opinion without informing the student? Does whether the opinion would be positive or negative make a difference?

I'm reasonably sure there are no legal issues involved, so I'm just interested in the ethical considerations.

  • @NateEldrege's comment on this answer makes it clear that there may be legal issues, here. You should say what country you're in. – David Richerby Jul 11 '14 at 7:57
  • @DavidRicherby There are multiple countries involved and I'd rather not risk de-anonymising the question. I am reasonably sure that in the specific circumstances the legal issues aren't significant so I'm just interested in the ethical considerations. – Anonymous Jul 11 '14 at 8:16
  • OK. But you should probably add that information (that you're fairly sure it's legal and you're just asking about the ethics) to the question, so people don't have to read the comments to find out. – David Richerby Jul 11 '14 at 8:26
  • In what way have you been contacted - the prof met you in the corridor and said 'By the way this student is applying for so and so, what do you think about this?' Or he contacted you via email? Or some other way? – greenfingers Jul 11 '14 at 8:28
  • @greenfingers By email. I edited the question to add these details and the legal/ethical point – Anonymous Jul 11 '14 at 8:44

It does not make a difference whether your review would be positive or negative, and it is your duty to keep your discussions about the student confidential. Should you choose to review their application, you should not tell the student or anyone not involved in the process that you are doing so.

You are being asked to help your university, or maybe just a professor who trusts you, to help with their admissions and hiring process. You should take it seriously and give an honest review if you can. If you don't feel like you can be objective in your review (maybe the student is a friend or colleague), then you should decline to do so. But I don't feel like there's an ethical issue in the applicant not knowing that you've been asked about them.

  • 2
    I'm not sure it's that simple. If I were to say "She's a good student and very smart" I'd probably be okay. But if I said "She got an A in my class" I'd be breaking US law (FERPA). Where does one draw the line? Maybe the lawyers have to tell us. – Nate Eldredge Jul 11 '14 at 6:39
  • The edits change the tone enough for me that I agree with @NateEldredge that there is at least some nuance. I was presuming that the OP was a fellow student not another professor such that FERPA-style issues probably could come up. I still don't think there's an ethical issue as long as you don't intend to reveal protected information. – Bill Barth Jul 11 '14 at 11:48
  • I guess the question hinges, in part, on what constitutes "suitability". But also, the person is simply being asked for their opinion, not a critique. If someone asks my professional opinion on an issue, I am only obligated to provide them with an answer and no supporting argument: the fact that it is my professional opinion suffices. – Gremlin Brenneman Jul 11 '14 at 13:03

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