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I am preparing my tenure-track faculty application materials for the current hiring cycle, and I'm thinking of replacing one of my reference writers with one of my PhD committee members (I'll call him Dr. Z). In addition to serving on my committee (I successfully defended my dissertation earlier this year), Dr. Z was a co-author on several journal/conference papers and a former instructor for several classes in which I did very well.

I sent an email to Dr. Z asking him if he would be willing to provide a letter of recommendation for me. His reply:

I have been informed that you have FERPA restrictions on your academic records. I cannot provide reference letters for you or speak on your behalf to any potential employers with FERPA restrictions in place.

When I first enrolled at my PhD-granting institution, I placed FERPA restrictions on my academic records. Specifically, I chose to have my directory information removed from my school's online directory. I'm not a control freak, but I do tend to take advantage of mechanisms which help to prevent any of my personal information (such as home address, etc.) falling into unknown hands.

I have no reason not to remove the FERPA restrictions, but I hate the thought of removing them under these circumstances. However, I also understand, and appreciate, anyone's right to provide (or not) a reference for whatever reason(s) they choose.

I am left wondering, though:

Is there a legitimate reason that someone in Dr. Z's position would have for wanting to see my academic records prior to providing a reference?


Edit — For what it's worth, I am seeking out reference writers, such as Dr. Z, who can speak to my research capabilities, not about how well I did in their class.

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    Any recommendation letter Dr. Z may write will necessarily talk about your academic performance, because that's a large part of the context in which he knows you. It seems to me that he is saying the FERPA restriction prohibits him from sharing what he knows about your academic performance - which is FERPA-protected information - with the recipient of the letter. It doesn't necessarily mean he needs or wants to see your academic records. (IANAL and I don't have any FERPA-specific expertise, this is just speculation.) – David Z Oct 17 '14 at 2:15
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    I'm confused. FERPA restricts who can see your educational records by default, unless you explicitly given them permission. You shouldn't have needed to "place" any restrictions. (Unless you're talking about "directory information", which is not restricted by default.) – JeffE Oct 17 '14 at 11:29
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    Following on what David Z wrote, the professor may already have access to your records, but university policy might forbid him from commenting on you at all while you a FERPA hold. Some universities go a little overboard in their conservative interpretations of FERPA. – Oswald Veblen Oct 17 '14 at 11:38
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    This document says by default a school can divulge "directory" info about a student. This may include date of birth, height & weight, address, phone number, and more. A student has the legal right under FERPA to forbid any directory disclosures without prior permission. This may be the "FERPA restriction" mentioned above. If the student has forbidden disclosure, then perhaps any reference by a professor of this student as a student to any outside person or organization may be a crime. (But I'm no lawyer or FERPA expert.) – Basil Bourque Oct 17 '14 at 17:55
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    In that case, the professor is right to be cautious. By hiding your directory information, you are making it illegal for anyone to even identify you as a student, much less write a letter about your performance or research potential, without an explicit written waiver. You are asking for the same privacy protections as a student who is a victim of serious harassment or violence, or who needs protection from an abusive spouse, abusive parents, abusive paparazzi, or 4chan. – JeffE Oct 19 '14 at 19:07
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By "FERPA restrictions" I assume you mean additional restrictions on the release of directory information, since these are the only extra restrictions I'm aware of. If so, then the professor's reluctance may have little to do with your academic track record per se.

Many professors take a fairly laid back approach to FERPA and consider that an e-mail request for a recommendation constitutes sufficient written permission to release information. However, some universities take restrictions on releasing directory information very seriously indeed. As I understand it (keep in mind that I am not a lawyer), when you invoke these restrictions the university is not even allowed to confirm to anyone that you have ever been a student there. A few students deeply care about this, such as celebrities, the ultra wealthy, or anyone trying to avoid a stalker or abuser. These students have good reason to worry about invasions of privacy, and they want universities to place absolute restrictions on even apparently innocuous information. For example, you can imagine social engineering attacks in which a private investigator, tabloid reporter, or stalker forges an e-mail to a professor asking them to serve as a reference for a job or internship, and then calls them to dig for information.

For most other students, FERPA restrictions can be problematic. For example, if a company contacts the university to try to verify your resume, the university isn't allowed to drop any hints. They are supposed to give exactly the same response as if you had never been there, so your resume should fail to verify, and the company may not give you a chance to explain. (You'd think they should, and they might if they really want to hire you, but big companies can be pretty callous about quickly dumping applicants whose resumes fail to check out.)

In my experience, universities differ in how vigorously they enforce these rules. For example, lawyers are more influential in some administrations than others, and some universities simply have more celebrities enrolled and thus face greater pressure to be strict.

As for how the professor could find out you have these restrictions in place, I'd guess it was from looking at your records. However, there are other possibilities. Some universities specifically notify everyone whose class contains a student with extra FERPA restrictions, to remind them not to reveal that this student is in their class, so the professor might remember receiving these warnings.

So my interpretation is that your university has you on a short list of students for whom everything is supposed to be completely confidential, and this professor doesn't want to risk upsetting the administration by violating these restrictions (while your other letter writers may not have been paying attention or may be more relaxed about such things).

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    As far as I know, the student choice of restricting release of directory information (stuff like name, field of study, degrees awarded, etc.) is the only way in which a student can place restrictions on the release of information- the restriction on the release of academic records (such as grades) is automatic and must be explicitly waived by the student. It may be that Dr. Z. is confused on this point. – Brian Borchers Oct 17 '14 at 14:37
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    It is more likely that Dr. Z. has (correctly) interpreted that things like his comments on dissertation progress are "academic records." – Bob Brown Oct 17 '14 at 19:51
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David Z's comment is dead on: it is an unpleasant technicality that under FERPA regulations, one should not discuss the student's performance in any quantitatively specific way. E.g., one should not say "Mr. X got an A in all my courses" or even "Mr. X was the top student in the course". The exact rules are confusing to many faculty members, to the point where one feels like if one took FERPA too seriously one might not be able to write a suitable letter.

In my university there is, in theory, a form that a student can fill out to waive the FERPA regulations on a letter-by-letter basis. In theory this means that if the letter is getting mailed to N institutions, one should fill out N forms.

(The above considerations apply to all students, not just those who have asked for special protection. However, a student who places further restrictions on their records is precisely going on the record as being especially concerned about their privacy, so in practice it makes a lot of sense to take the FERPA restrictions much more seriously for these students.)

It may or may not be the case that Dr. Z is himself trying to access or view any of your academic records. (I guess he must have done something to find out that your records are FERPA-restricted though.) Whether someone would look up a student's grades in courses taken by other faculty members must depend on the people and the institution. For instance, at my institution I have access to the grades of all undergraduate students -- and I have been informed of the FERPA requirement that I access them only for legitimate, educational purposes -- but I do not have access to the grades of any graduate students, even my own advisees. So in practice when I write letters for students I speak only about their performance in my courses -- but again, if they were FERPA-restricted and I was being suitably conscientious then I would even then have to be extremely careful about what I could say and likely be forbidden from including a certain amount of positive information about the student.

Also:

I have no reason not to remove the FERPA restrictions, but I hate the thought of removing them under these circumstances; this tastes a little too much like blackmail to me.

Even assuming that Dr. Z wants permission to access your records and not just to talk about them, I think you are not viewing this in the right way. "Blackmail" seems ridiculous to me: one of the conditions for that is that the blackmailer must have something to gain! What does Dr. Z gain if you waive or even entirely remove your FERPA restrictions? The pleasure of viewing some of your academic records??

For my part, I am curious as to why you chose to place restrictions on your academic records at all: what are you protecting yourself from, really? It sounds like you may not completely understand what FERPA restrictions mean and may have just taken them on as a sort of free insurance. If I were you I would learn more about this. In my opinion, one could argue that "I have FERPA restricted my records" and "Please write me a strong recommendation letter" is already a bit of a mixed message.

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    Thanks, Pete. I agree that "blackmail" is too extreme, but I couldn't think of a better word to describe my feeling. I'm going to remove it from my post. – Mad Jack Oct 17 '14 at 3:03
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    @MadJack: Letters written for former PhD students by faculty in their program usually talk at least a little bit about their coursework. This is a way to provide new information and an independent perspective. Also, if performance in courses had nothing to do with research success, why would we have courses at all? I recently wrote a letter for an NSF postdoc, and I explained how his superior problem-solving abilities in my courses were directly related to his research strengths (and to a paper that we wrote together). – Pete L. Clark Oct 17 '14 at 4:29
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    If you feel strongly that your letter writers should not write about your coursework, there's an easy solution: get letters from people who haven't taught you in courses or better yet, from outside of your university. – Pete L. Clark Oct 17 '14 at 4:32
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    @Mad Jack: you can certainly suggest to the letter writers which aspects you'd like them to mention, but you can't really micromanage the exact topics they write about. They have the freedom to write about anything that they think is relevant to helping you get a job. And they have probably seen many letters of recommendation from others, so they have a sense of what is commonly included. – Oswald Veblen Oct 17 '14 at 11:48
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    @MadJack: Also note that your research is also part of your educational history at the institution. (I bet you signed up for a bunch of ungraded "Independent Research" courses, right?) So your professor may think (rightly or wrongly, I am not a lawyer) the FERPA restriction also prohibits him from discussing your research. In fact, as some of the other answers mention, it may prohibit him from confirming that you were a student at all! – Nate Eldredge Oct 17 '14 at 14:13
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Here is what I tell my own students; my guess is that Dr. Z. is thinking along much the same lines:

"Federal law requires that I have a FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) release from you before I tell anyone other than a school to which you have applied anything about your education at this institution. For most of you, all I know about you is your performance as a student, so without that release, the most I can say is that you were my student, period. Because those asking about you are likely to interpret such a stark statement negatively, I won't provide any reference at all (except to other schools) without that FERPA release."

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    Good point that providing a reference which has obvious holes (and thus might be interpreted as "damning with faint praise") could be worse for someone than no reference at all. – R.M. Oct 17 '14 at 21:19
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Is there a legitimate reason that someone in Dr. Z's position would have for wanting to see my academic records prior to providing a reference?

Yes - I usually look up the academic records of students when I write a letter for them. This is so that I have more data about their academic success when writing the letter. For example, if they did well in classes that I know are particularly difficult, I can mention that somewhere, and if they have a high GPA, I can mention that somewhere.

In general, you should try to give your letter writers as much info as possible. This includes not just access to your academic records (which they likely have anyway) but also at least your CV. If you have them, it doesn't hurt to send your personal statement, teaching statement, research statement, etc. as well. Not every reviewer will be able to speak to all of these in their letter, of course.

Remember you have already trusted the person to write a confidential letter about you which you are very unlikely to ever see. This requires some amount of trust in the letter writer. For that reason, if a student told me "I would like you to write a letter of recommendation, but please don't look at my academic history", I would find it very unusual.

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From that quote, it seems like that person is not on friendly terms with you. If s/he had the good will in him/her to recommend you, s/he would write something like "Oh, I'd gladly oblige you, but you have this FERPA restriction we would need to get past because of blah blah blah; so why don't you do XYZ to take care of it?"... but s/he did the opposite of that basically.

I'd seriously reconsider whether I want his/her recommendation in the first place.

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    Thank you for your answer, and +1. I don't understand the downvotes here: this is a perfectly legitimate take on the situation. – Mad Jack Feb 2 '17 at 5:53
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    @MadJack: Just had to say it, since I know sometimes people are stressed out about getting a recommendation, since they N of them and they only have N-1, so they tend to overlook the (hypothetical but probable) possibility that it will do mor eharm than good. – einpoklum Feb 2 '17 at 22:31

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