In 2003, the Department of Justice investigated a claim by a student at Texas Tech University that religious discrimination was inherent in a professor’s policy of not writing recommendation letters for students who didn’t support the theory of evolution. On the professor’s website, he had told students seeking letters: “I will ask you, ‘How do you account for the scientific origin of the human species?’ If you will not give a scientific answer to this question, then you should not seek my recommendation” (13). The student hadn’t sought a letter from the professor, nor enrolled in his class, but had sat in on the class for a few days and objected to the professor’s posted policy. While a representative at the Liberty Legal Institute, which supported the student's claim, called the professor’s actions “egregious conduct,” a spokeswoman at Texas Tech defended the stance: “Professors don’t have to write recommendations at all, and we certainly don’t tell them who they have to write for . . . He’s not saying he wouldn’t write a letter for a Christian—he’s saying he wouldn’t write a letter for someone who doesn’t believe in evolution” (14). The investigation was dropped after a short time, after some changes to the professor’s website, including a comment that the policy should not be “misconstrued as discriminatory against anyone’s personal beliefs” (13).
Whatever stroke you swim in this ethical soup, you are well-advised as you write letters to consider the issue of discrimination as a complex, potentially combustible one. Any number of stances might be supported in the above scenario, but the back story to this tale should be equally interesting: presumably, the professor came to this stance after repeatedly facing the issue with students requesting letters—i.e., the position developed from experience. When a claim of discrimination surfaces, considerations of experience and intention seem to be critical on behalf of both parties. And these considerations are best weighed within context. In the context of letters of recommendation, writers must be concerned about discrimination based on gender, race, and a host of personal circumstances.
Considering gender, one study of over 1,000 letters of recommendation from the 1970s provides some revealing language. One candidate was described as a “tallish blue-eyed blond,” another was cited as “not neglecting her family,” and another was characterized as having a “remarkable [devotion to scholarship] in a young woman who is physically so slight and so pretty” (15). Such commentary, which baldly smacks of sexism and stereotypes, helps us see the obvious danger of discriminatory language and examples in letters of recommendation.
A successful lawsuit cited earlier involved reference letters and claims of race discrimination (7), and numerous studies have explored the issue of gender-biased practices in letters. An assessment of 300 letters written for medical faculty reinforced gender schema of women as teachers and students and men as researchers and professionals (16), and even studies that have found no substantive evidence of sexism in letters have supported findings of content differences based on the writer’s gender and evidence of gender solidarity (17, 18). To generalize, then, there is an argument that not only do males and females write differently in letters of reference, they write about males and females differently. The bottom line emerging from such academic findings—not to mention from the employment of common sense—is that writers clearly must not make statements in letters that could serve as a basis for discrimination. And a good number of statutes define the various headings under which we must avoid discrimination: race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, politics, religion, age, appearance, marital or parental status, or any handicapping condition.
But for the letter writer the issue is often highly nuanced: Suppose an African-American professor wants to comment on his student’s role as an officer in the campus Black Caucus? Suppose a professor of women’s studies wants to celebrate her female student’s paper on depictions of feminine stereotypes in 19th century paintings? Suppose a political science professor wants to cite her student bringing experience from his native third world country to classroom discussion? Should these writers avoid such commentary based on concerns of discrimination? The considered answer here is likely “no,” but neither can such comments be made in a way that race, gender, or certain personal characteristics are likely to become an inappropriate criterion in the decision-making process. As noted earlier on the subject of discrimination claims, the writer’s experiences and intentions are highly relevant, as is the letter’s context.
Avoiding Discriminatory Practices in Letters
To avoid discriminatory practices while still addressing appropriate personal characteristics of the candidate, consult the following list of questions:
Is there any good reason to reveal gender, race, or other potentially discriminatory characteristics within the context of the application as a whole? If not, strictly avoid doing so (other than by use of the appropriate gender pronoun, of course).
If race, gender, or other personal characteristics are relevant to the application context, is the student invited to comment in these areas? If so, are you as the letter writer specifically invited to do the same? Noteworthy examples include the Soros Fellowship for New Americans or a scholarship specifically for women in science. Here, effective commentary on nationality or gender within the context of a field might be considered relevant, though such commentary would still have to be concerned with tone and proportion.
Do you have a meaningful affiliation with the student which goes beyond the student/teacher relationship? Do you have personal information about the student that you think is highly useful to mention? Is it naturally relevant? Is a selector likely to find such information automatically helpful and benign or needlessly distracting? Does the personal information lift up and humanize the student or does it reinforce stereotype? Answering "yes" to any of these questions increases the likelihood that the student's race, gender, or other personal characteristics are valuable contributions to the letter's content.
Even with this list of questions, getting near such matters feels like too much of a hot button issue for many writers. When in doubt, some writers actually ask students their opinion of how such details might be addressed if at all, while others consult with colleagues or do some digging to find out their school’s policy. Certainly, all schools have considered this issue, and some such as the University of Alabama in Huntsville—in its “Legal Implications of Letters of Recommendation” (19)—publish guidelines. Amidst this school’s guidelines, for instance, is this example of what a blundering discriminatory statement might sound like: “For a 55-year-old non-traditional student, she has a remarkable record, particularly in view of her inner city background.”
Perhaps the simplest rule of thumb is this: When writing letters, avoid comments that would make a person of sensibilities become distracted enough to wince.
The issue of discrimination and its impacts in letters has received some attention in academic circles in recent years. Here are two examples: