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A few years ago, I reported a student for academic dishonesty (in a graduate-level mathematics course, they were copying solutions off the internet, nearly verbatim). After acknowledging their wrong-doing with the Academic Integrity office on campus, they were allowed to drop the course.

The next year, the student re-enrolled in my course, and did reasonably well. I had no qualms about the originality of their work this time.

They recently asked me whether I would be willing to write them a recommendation letter for PhD programs in mathematics.

If I write a letter, am I obligated to write about the academic dishonesty incident? It appears to me that the student has already faced the consequences of their actions (they had to drop the course); however, this was a significant part of my interactions with the student and it seems dishonest to not mention it.

(I am aware that I could simply tell the student that I am not comfortable writing a letter, but I am curious to know what one should do in this situation if one did write a letter.)

Some facts: when the incident occured, the student was in their first semester of our masters program. They are also an international student, and this was their first semester in the US.


ETA: Look, I framed the question to be as general as possible so that it can be useful to the community as a whole. Since some commentors are choosing to attack my teaching practices, below are some more specifics, where once again I am trying to not reveal the identity of this student, myself, the course, the university, etc. I am actively trying to do what's best for the student here (note that I clearly state that I think the student has faced consequences for their actions; I am also not using my usual ac.se account to post this), and I don't understand where comments about "shutting down a student's career" are coming from.

I clearly state in my syllabus and on the first day of class that copying solutions off the internet (or any written source) is not allowed. I do this because I encountered this situation as a TA in graduate school. In particular, students are allowed to talk to anyone they like about problems, but I believe that when they just copy a solution, they are not learning. You are welcome to disagree with my policy, but it is my policy and my class, and it was clearly stated in two separate venues.

The copied solutions were virtually indistinguishable from the solutions online. This was not a matter of simply "being inspired". This was not isolated - three out of six solutions were copied, and those were just the ones I spotted. When I noticed this, I asked the student to come talk to me. I told them that I had noticed similarities between their work and solutions I had found online. I told them that I was not accusing them of anything, and they did not have to tell me anything; I reiterated that copying solutions from the internet was not permitted; I invited them to come to my office hours to talk about future problem sets; but that if I noticed such similarities again I would report them to Academic Integrity. They did it again on the next problem set (four out of six solutions).

Although they denied everything once via email, after talking with Academic Integrity (where they owned up to everything), they did find me and apologize. I was cordial to them throughout this event, and continued to be so afterward. We remain on good terms now. I consciously try to ensure that I do not let this incident color my interactions and behavior with them. They made a mistake once but people make mistakes and I am trying hard not to take it personally.

In summary, the incident itself was pretty blatant, the policy was clearly stated, and they had an opportunity to stop such that I would not have reported them if they had. I did not take reporting the student lightly. Nonetheless, I think academic dishonesty is a serious matter and it is our responsibility as faculty members to not turn a blind eye to it.

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    To clarify, the student was in a graduate-level course, but were they actually a graduate student? – Nate Eldredge Dec 14 '16 at 15:46
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    Have you communicated with the AIO? I think it's important to check if the incident was permanently filed with the student's record. They may also give you some policy-based suggestions on this. – Penguin_Knight Dec 14 '16 at 16:14
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    Have you asked the student how they'd discuss the academic dishonesty incident in the letter, if they were in your shoes? This will let student know that you haven't forgot about it, and it places some of the burden on the student about how to deal with a problem they created. – Mad Jack Dec 14 '16 at 17:29
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    Some countries have very lax cultures regarding plagiarism. The student probably had to learn to not do that at some point and apparently did so in your course. Do with that information as you may. – user18072 Dec 14 '16 at 18:55
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    @Marcel the questions were exercises from the standard textbook in the subject (you should think Hatcher, or Lang, or Atiyah-Macdonald). These are questions that all graduate students should solve. I find it strange to be attacked for assigning such questions. – Anonymous_professor Dec 15 '16 at 14:16

14 Answers 14

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+500

TL; DR: The student probably wants you to write a letter to mitigate the harm of the incident because they already expect admissions committees to know about it. In that case, mention it briefly and move on to your standard letter.


There are only three reasons I can think of why a student would ask you to write a letter in this situation. How you respond depends on the reason.

  1. Despite, or perhaps because, of the incident you have become a mentor to the student and genuinely know the student very well. The student knows that they have regained your trust and confidence, and that you're in a good position to give them a solid recommendation.

    A. If this is the case, and you truly do now trust the student and want to offer a strong recommendation, you can mention that the two of you got off to a rocky start, and allude to the issue without going into detail (you don't need to use the words "misconduct" or "cheating"). You could say that the student worked hard to regain your confidence, and that you are now happy to strongly recommend etc.
    B. If this is only sort of true, and you don't think very highly of this student and/or have reason to think they might cheat again given the right circumstances, you should decline to write the letter.

It doesn't sound like your situation falls into the first category, however, which brings us to the second possibility.

  1. The student knows that this incident will appear on their record, and that their prospective programs will see it. They believe they have at least somewhat redeemed themselves in your eyes, and are hoping that a generally positive letter from you will mitigate the harm of the incident. I suspect that this is what's actually going on. If so, you should confirm this. Ask the student specifically whether the incident will already be known to admissions committees.
    A. If the answer is yes, write whatever letter you would have written absent the misconduct but with an additional paragraph noting that you were involved in the incident and believe that the student has faced sufficient consequences, and that your letter focuses on their performance in the subsequent class. If you have reason to think the student has learned from the incident and it's not likely to be repeated, include that in the paragraph acknowledging the misconduct, but don't dwell on it.
    B. If the answer is no, the misconduct is sealed or otherwise unlikely to become know to prospective programs, we come to the third possibility.

  2. The student is extremely naive, and doesn't realize the potential harm you could do to their admissions chances by writing about the misconduct.
    A. In this case, absent any particularly strong admiration for the student, I would decline to write the letter. At the very least, you need to strongly caution the student about how bad a letter from you could be for them.
    B. If you really still want to write the letter and your student still wants you to write it after being warned: You could take either approach above, depending on what feels more comfortable to you—either allude to the issue in the most general terms, or mention it but state specifically that it is not the focus of your letter. You should definitely warn your student about this beforehand, though, and perhaps allow them to see the letter before you send it.

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    As of my observation, many undergraduate programs in third world nation fail to warn their students about the negative impact of plagiarism. So they come to the grad school without realizing that plagiarism is never tolerated. The faculty should make sure that these rules (expectations regarding paraphrasing, referencing, and citing) are well communicated for the sake of these students. I believe that it can be the scenario #3 you mentioned. The student seems to be underestimating her/his academic misconduct. – Pradeeban Kathiravelu Dec 17 '16 at 11:53
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    @PradeebanKathiravelu Yes, it certainly could be that; that's why it would be very important to verify the student's thought processes. It's also possible that it's something between 2 and 3—the student thinks the incident is obvious in their record, but it actually isn't—or between 1 and 3—the student thinks they've impressed the professor more than they have and that the incident had/will have less impact than it actually did/will have. – 1006a Dec 17 '16 at 14:48
  • This is a really good answer. Any answer which doesn't take into account this highly disparate sets of circumstances will not give useful advice. – jwg Dec 20 '16 at 16:44
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The best option is: Don't write the letter. In a case like this, I would outright refuse to provide a recommendation.

However, if you are not comfortable with a non-negotiable refusal, you might want to simply tell the student that you cannot provide a positive letter for them. If the student insists, then you should write an honest letter that gives a balanced evaluation of their ability and personal traits. The fact that you caught the student cheating is a critically important piece of information in this regard, and it needs to be included. The cheating will almost certainly be the most salient feature to anyone who reads the letter, which will make the net effect of the letter, regardless of whatever else you say in it, strongly negative. And if the student insists on you writing the letter in this situation, that is basically what they deserve.

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    Yes and a critical issue is that they were a graduate student. If it had been a freshman cheating, you could chalk it up to immaturity and a lack of understanding of the gravity of what they were doing. As @Buzz said, you shouldn't write the letter. They may have learned, but at that point they should have known. Integrity is a big deal in academia and any entering graduate student should have known better. – Dave Harris Dec 14 '16 at 15:36
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    @user25459 note that the student is from overseas, so it's quite possible they are from a country where academic integrity is less valued and emphasized than (say) the US or Western Europe, which I think would completely invalidate your point. – Dan Romik Dec 14 '16 at 17:20
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    @DanRomik - I've heard versions of "overseas students don't know about cheating" for the last twenty years and I call bullshit on it. 1) They should know; 2) They should know it has consequences; and 3) There should be real consequences. – RoboKaren Dec 14 '16 at 17:27
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    @DanRomik I live "overseas". Academic dishonesty is a very popular way of advancing your career even as a senior researcher around here. They know exactly what they are doing and why. It's just that in my country they don't get punished. Then they end up as PhD advisers and ask their students for money and paintings (I kid you not). They also end up in all sorts of scientific committees and decide only their friends should be awarded grant money. And it all started with a dash of well meant leniency. – user21264 Dec 14 '16 at 18:03
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    @Magicsowon once again, I am not advocating for any leniency based on geographical origins. I was simply making a point about user24549's point being potentially invalid. The student should face consequences for cheating, and by all accounts has in fact done so. It doesn't mean the consequences should be career-killing ones. – Dan Romik Dec 14 '16 at 20:15
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To what extent has the student regained your trust since the incident?

As other answers say, the incident is too significant to ignore. However, what you write in the letter should be not just “X happened”, but “X happened, and here’s how it affects my judgement of the student now.”

Most probably, your trust in their future honesty is still shaken, in which case (if you’re honest about this) your letter will carry a significant negative impact, to the extent that you should probably decline the request.

However, there could be mitigating circumstances that make you genuinely confident that the student will not re-offend. For instance — since you mention they were a newly-arrived international student — perhaps their home country had a different culture around expectations for homework, but you feel confident that they have now absorbed US academic norms. In that case you can say so in the letter:

I would be remiss not to mention that [incident occurred]. However, I feel this should not be held against X’s future prospects, since [mitigating circumstances, and why you feel they’ve regained your trust].

I would expect, for most readers, this would still have some negative effect on their assessment of the student — but much less than if they learned of the incident some other way (e.g. mentioned on the student’s academic transcript) without an explanation of the mitigating factors. So overall, submitting this letter would be a positive thing (provided that the rest of it is enthusiastic).

Disclaimer: I have only a little experience of admissions/hiring; I hope more experienced users can confirm (or differ with) my expectation of how such a letter will be received.

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    In the same situation, I would be wondering whether the student has learned that the behavior was inappropriate, or whether he has merely learned that you don't get away with it in a university in this country. – WGroleau Dec 14 '16 at 20:55
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    @immibis I think GregMartin just means that the sentence should have "or whether they have merely learned", i.e. agrees with you and thinks gender shouldn't be there. I think you may have mis-read the intent of the comment. Unless I have! – Michael Durrant Dec 15 '16 at 1:48
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    I disagree, and so does research into the matter, e.g., apaonline.org/?page=nonsexist and web.stanford.edu/class/linguist156/Gastil_1990.pdf – Greg Martin Dec 15 '16 at 7:31
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    I don't understand where this idea of "cheating is their culture" is coming from. Academic dishonesty is academic dishonesty. People get kicked out of school for it all over the world. The student's honesty or lack thereof should be judged on its own merits, and based on their individual interactions with the professor, not on some patronizing assessment of substandard ethics overseas. – Asad Saeeduddin Dec 18 '16 at 18:49
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    @AsadSaeeduddin: going on my own first-hand experience in N America and Europe, the following all definitely vary widely between institutions and countries/regions: (a) the prevalence of cheating; (b) the severity of penalties for cheating; (c) the perceived moral severity of cheating; (d) the relative severity of cheating on homework vs. on exams; (e) the threshold of what counts as cheating. So, when people with first-hand experience have told me that these vary even more in other parts of the world, I’ve found that very plausible. Comments on other answers include some specific examples. – PLL Dec 19 '16 at 20:58
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I do not think that you have to mention the incident and that you may well choose to not include it. What you do should mostly depend on what you think of the student now as the recommendation letter is used to estimate how the student will perform in the future and not to assess how they had performed in all previous life.

If you have reason to believe that the student learned their lesson from the incident and you think that you can recommend them, then I see two options:

  • You start from the assumption that the incident should not be something that should haunt the student forever and you just do not mention it. This is in line with your saying that "the student has already faced the consequences of their actions". Also, it's based on the view that the student should not be penalized twice for the exact same event. Also, copying solutions from the web verbatim does not appear to me as something which is so genuinely dishonest that the student should carry the weight of that incident forever.

  • You include the incident in the letter but add that the student has performed well in the class and no other dishonesty has appeared so far.

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    If an incident of failed integrity is known, and the choice is made to not include it in the letter, does that not equate to failed ethical integrity on the part of the letter writer? – NZKshatriya Dec 14 '16 at 16:26
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    @NZKshatriya: Only if you believe the letter writer has an ethical obligation to include it. Dirk apparently thinks they do not. – Nate Eldredge Dec 14 '16 at 17:15
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    Maybe the "if you have reason to believe..." part should be emphasized more. – Nobody Dec 14 '16 at 17:25
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    @NZKshatriya good question. You pose it as a rhetorical question but the answer seems far from obvious to me. For example, I stole a candy from a store when I was a kid. Does that mean that every person writing me an LOR in the future after reading this comment should be required to mention this "incident of failed integrity" or be tainted by a similar failed integrity themselves? – Dan Romik Dec 14 '16 at 20:32
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    @NZKshatriya exactly, your last comment reinforces my point: if as you say "everyone's view on how far back to track transgressions is different", then a choice not to mention a cheating incident from a few years ago is entirely reasonable. Hence your sweeping statement (expressed as a rhetorical question) about failed integrity being automatically transmittable through an LOR-writing relationship is overly general and simplistic. – Dan Romik Dec 14 '16 at 22:46
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I found myself in this very same situation several years ago and informed the student I would not be able to write a letter without mentioning the incident that brought them before the AIO. The student insisted, and so I wrote an honest letter of recommendation, which included an account of the incident. The student wasn't accepted into the program they had applied to do their PhD (she was eventually accepted into another program that I had not written a letter for), and a year later, a professor from the first program who received the letter complained to one of my colleagues; claiming I should have recused myself despite my having stated in the letter that the student had insisted I write one. I would have thought the program the student applied to would appreciate an honest review, but that isn't always the case. Lesson learned - don't write a letter of recommendation unless you have nothing but good things to say about the student.

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    I disagree with the complaining prof but appreciate the first-hand insight; +1 – iayork Dec 14 '16 at 17:41
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    "The student wasn't accepted into the program they had applied to do their PhD (she was eventually accepted into another program that I had not written a letter for), and a year later, a professor from the first program who received the letter complained to one of my colleagues; claiming I should have recused myself despite my having stated in the letter that the student had insisted I write one." You got a complaint about a letter in which you were honest in your reporting of relevant information? That sucks. – Pete L. Clark Dec 14 '16 at 19:03
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    "I would have thought the program the student applied to would appreciate an honest review" - it sounds like you essentially dis-recommended the student with your honest review, which is why that Professor complained. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Dec 16 '16 at 10:29
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    Yes, no doubt my letter was instrumental in the decision to reject her. What I failed to mention in my first post was that I only spoke of the one incident because it was the only one that resulted in a sanction. – Inde Dec 16 '16 at 14:27
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    +1 as this answer gives direct indication of how readers of such a letter reacted. – cbeleites supports Monica Dec 17 '16 at 17:11
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First of all, from an ethical point of view I don't think you have an obligation to report the incident. Mentioning it would likely destroy the student's chances of getting into a good PhD program, so if your philosophical view about crime and punishment is that a single incident of cheating does not prove that someone is irredeemably morally corrupt, and specifically think that there's a fair chance that this particular student learned their lesson and will not repeat the offense, it's reasonable not to mention it.

Second, I can suggest the following course of action that would make it possible for you to get to a more comfortable place about the decision to write a letter for the student. Invite the student for a chat, and explain to them that you think they're a good student with potential to succeed in a graduate program, but that you have a dilemma about whether to write the letter because of the cheating incident. Ask them to tell you their view about the incident - why they did it, how they feel about it now etc. I think the student's answer is likely to be quite revealing and either make you more sympathetic to their situation and more comfortable writing the letter, or make you realize that they probably didn't learn their lesson and that you should not write the letter after all. In any case it will allow you to reach a more informed decision that you are more at peace with.

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    Not that I disagree with you, but your first paragraph seems to indicate there is a problem with ideal reality somewhere. If the incident should disqualify the student from good PhD programs, then not mentioning it is somehow dishonest. If it shouldn't, then mentioning it shouldn't destroy the student's chances. – Kimball Dec 14 '16 at 18:26
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    @Kimball you are spot on, indeed there is a very real "problem with ideal reality": in an ideal world, mentioning an incident of cheating shouldn't necessarily destroy a student's chance of getting into a PhD program, but in the real world it almost certainly will. This is precisely why there is an ethical dilemma here, since it puts two values (the professor's wish to make the LOR as honest as possible on the one hand, and their wish to do the thing that results in the most just outcome on the other hand) in direct conflict with each other. – Dan Romik Dec 14 '16 at 21:09
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    @Kimball: I don't know enough about letters of recommendation for academic programs (we basically don't have them in my country) but over here letters of recommendation written by employers are highly codified in their phrases and only give positive sides (the analogue for the present question would maybe a phrase missing that states OP has always known the student to be acting strictly honestly). Likewise, I suspect that how things should be ideally is less of a concern than adhering to (unwritten) rules of whether and how to state what in this situation. – cbeleites supports Monica Dec 17 '16 at 17:23
  • @cbeleites A lot of academics write letters in a similar way, but your suggested analogue doesn't make sense here because professors wouldn't normally write something like "this person has never cheated" as it's taken for granted. Another issue that the community is small, and if your letters are not honest people will realize this and start ignoring them. – Kimball Dec 17 '16 at 19:49
  • @Kimball: another difference is that the employer cannot refuse to write such a letter, while the academic can. And I suspect (also from reading the other answers and comments) that this is the answer to the question. – cbeleites supports Monica Dec 17 '16 at 20:00
16

Interesting question!

Seeing as you are even entertaining the possibility of writing a letter, you might want to check it up with the student, to inquire about his/her point of view in coming to ask you (despite your troublesome history) for a recommendation letter. It should be as clear to him/her that you would be at least partially split on the matter.

Maybe the student considers facing the consequences of a wrong-doing and mending the bridges to be an important lesson, maybe that's the theme the student is going for... I don't know, I am purely speculating here. It's equally possible that the student thinks that what's done is done and now forgotten. Obviously the two alternative scenarios do not warrant the same type of response.

But by engaging in a dialogue, you might gain insight as to how the student in question thinks, and thereby make a more informed decision.

  • However, I think that while the student's view is important information in judging whether they learned their lesson or not, it is even more important for the letter to adhere to the (probably unwritten) rules for letters of recommendation. Otherwise the message read may differ a lot from the intended message of the writer. – cbeleites supports Monica Dec 17 '16 at 17:15
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"If you can't say something good about someone, say nothing at all." This is a letter that you obviously don't want to write. Tell the student that you are simply unable to write a letter that would be acceptable to both of you. Then simply move on.

  • While I entirely agree with your opinion, your answer does not answer the question. @Anonymous_professor asks if it would be unethical to not include the incident in a recommendation letter, once he decided to write a recommendation letter. So, the letter is happening for sure, not writing it is not an option at this point. – Andrei Dec 19 '16 at 16:35
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I do not think it's appropriate for anyone to suffer the consequence of a single misconduct twice. Hence, I would rather you decline the student's request to write the letter or pen down something good about him if you do decide to oblige him.

4

I have to admit that I agree with everyone but Buzz and Inde.

The AnonProf should

  1. Talk to the student. (I would have done this the moment he/she approached for a recommendation.)
  2. Warn the student that the recommendation might include this incident (including any positive outcomes), but maybe not.
  3. AnonProf needs to search his/her own soul about "crime and punishment" or "infraction and redemption" and how he/she feels about the student's rehabilitation,
  4. and, independently of the incident, AnonProf needs to search his/her own head about this student's performance in mathematics.
  5. Then AnonProf needs to decide whether or not the cosmos would be better off writing the letter or not. That is not synonymous with whether or not the student would be better off or if the academe or the mathematics profession would be better of, but may be very closely related to that.
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    I'd like to add that AnonProf (even more than they already do with this question) need to find out the local (country specific) "code" or "etiquette" for letters of recommendation in such awkward situations. Which I guess may very well turn out to be "refuse to write one". – cbeleites supports Monica Dec 17 '16 at 17:28
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    I like this answer. Personally I'd have put point #4 as point #1. Can AnonProf say that he is now convinced that the student is a gifted mathematician, or not? In other words, has he interacted with the student in an environment such as tutorials where cheating was quite impossible, and found the student's mathematical abilities on a par with, or even superior to, his own? – nigel222 Dec 20 '16 at 10:03
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An in-between option

Write the letter as you normally would, and mention that you had a disciplinary incident with the student, without details. This would most likely give them the possibility to explain themselves to the addressee of the letter, and if the latter chooses to contact you for details, you would naturally explain what happened from your point of view.

You could say for example, "The student took my course X and dropped out due to a disciplinary incident, then in the next year took it again and I saw them to be this and that"

4

I would consider showing the student a draft of the letter and seeing if the student wanted me to submit it.

I generally assume that even if a student waives the right to see the letter, there is still the possibility that he or she will see it anyway.

0

Only write the LoR if you are confident that the student learned from the incident and if you are fine letting it go. If you are not able to write the letter without mentioning the incident, then avoid writing it altogether.

Including it in the letter could jeopardize two things: your integrity as an educator and the student's future hireability. If the institution and the student and yourself have all come to an accord, no need to hang the student out to dry by opening him to questions by a future employer. Additionally, if this student goes on to perform poorly or in some way cast a poor reputation on whatever company hires him, then future students from your institution may be viewed from a deficit. Lastly, a letter of recommendation from you would be suspect to further scrutiny.

Commit to abstaining or supporting the student. That's a call only you can make given what you know about him/her.

  • cast a poor reputation on whatever company hires him? A kind reminder, the OP's student is asking the OP to write them a recommendation letter for PhD programs in mathematics – scaaahu Dec 22 '16 at 4:56
  • Ahh, I seem to have overlooked that, my apologies. Regardless of what institution/entity is applying to, I feel the same principles of reputation still apply in some manner. – Golightly Dec 22 '16 at 17:31
-1

It is not unethical, if you do not mention the incident. Of course, this is under the obvious assumption that you truly recommend the student for the PhD position, since you decided to write a recommendation letter.

Moreover, I consider it unethical to include negative comments in a recommendation letter. My reasoning for this is that a recommendation letter is just that, a recommendation letter. If one's not recommending in a recommendation letter, one is not writing a recommendation letter, but just a letter, and one is failing to uphold the agreement that it made with the student to recommend him through a recommendation letter.

A recommendation letter should only include why you recommend someone, the fact that you recommend that person is already clear from the existence of the recommendation letter.

A recommendation letter is NOT:

  • a summary report on previous activity of the student
  • a letter in which one gossips random unrequested facts about a student

The moment one includes not recommending comments in a recommendation letter, you start being deceptive (by definition):

  • towards the person that you are recommending, by giving false hopes
  • towards the committee to which the letter is addressed, by recommending (hence the existing of the letter) someone you do not believe it should be recommended, since you include damaging aspects

Breaking an agreement and being deceptive is not ethical.

In conclusion, not only that not including the damaging story would be ethical, but the reverse, i.e. including the damaging story, is definitively unethical.

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