Is it ever appropriate for a teacher or counselor to rescind a college recommendation letter? That question is among the issues at the heart of a Massachusetts school controversy that has attracted attention from publications including the Boston Globe and Huffington Post.
Just before Thanksgiving a student at Stoughton High School in Massachusetts made a swastika out of tape while decorating the halls after school and propped it against a recycling bin in a classroom. Another student told him it was offensive and to throw it out. The creator of the swastika did, but not before making a comment about Hitler’s killing of Jews during the Holocaust.
After local police determined that the incident did not constitute a hate crime, the school disciplined the students responsible. But students weren’t the only ones disciplined arising from this incident. Two Stoughton teachers received letters of reprimand for talking about the situation with colleagues and students, and a third has been suspended for contacting a college, rescinding her letter of recommendation for the student who made the swastika, and telling the college her reason for doing so.
I was unaware of this issue until receiving an e-mail early last week from Scott Jaschik, the Editor of InsideHigherEd.com, who was writing a story about the incident and wanted my take on the ethical and practical ramifications of rescinding a letter of recommendation and punishing a teacher for rescinding.
Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I responded with an essay answer to what might have been a short-answer question. There are multiple issues in this situation germane to this blog.
First is the role of the recommendation letter in the college admissions process. Recommendations are part of the student’s “voice,” helping put a human face on a student’s application. A recommendation serves as the admissions equivalent of a legal brief, making a case for the student. It also serves as a footnote for the student’s transcript, providing context and explanation.
What it should never be is an indictment. I have written more than 2000 in my career, and I have never intentionally written one that is negative. I say “intentionally” because my career almost ended before it began due to a recommendation I wrote that came across as more negative than I intended.
The student in question had a modest high school record at a good school, and in a self-evaluation she admitted that she had not worked that hard. I had worked in admissions at the college level and thought that was true of most high-school kids and included the quote, naively seeing it as evidence of potential for better work in college. I learned the hard way that not everyone read it the same way after one university, seeing that the application fee was missing, returned the entire application package to the student, including my letter of recommendation. (How’s that for an ethical issue?) Fortunately I was able to rewrite the letter, repair the damage with the student and family, and salvage my career. The student was admitted everywhere she applied.
But what happens when the expectation that a recommendation will be positive comes into conflict with the truth? The value of any recommendation consists partly in the credibility of the writer. I tell teachers that they are not obligated to write a letter and should decline if they have reservations about their ability to put the student in a positive light.
As a counselor I don’t have that option, so I always write the most positive evaluation I can. Every recommendation tells a story. There is the story of accomplishment, the story of growth, the story of adversity overcome, and the story of potential. Obviously some of those stories are easier to tell.
Does that mean that a letter of recommendation is the truth but not necessarily the whole truth? Perhaps, but in small schools we sometimes know our students too well and may not have perspective on how they compare to the larger applicant pool. My rule of thumb is if you can’t say something nice, say nothing.
But what happens if subsequent events render a recommendation letter no longer accurate? Does a teacher or counselor have the right to rescind a letter? I believe the answer is yes from an ethical perspective, because the writer owns the recommendation (I am not aware of legal precedents regarding who owns the recommendation).
I have personally never considered rescinding a recommendation I had written, but remember talking to a colleague at another school a number of years ago who was thinking about doing so. It would take something egregious on the part of the student, and I would simply inform the college that “My recommendation is no longer valid” without offering any explanation. I would assume that the statement itself would raise a red flag.
So what behavior is egregious enough to take this step? In the Stoughton case I don’t have enough information to know whether the student making the swastika out of tape is just being a stupid teenager (not to downplay the offensiveness of the symbol) or is a potential danger to both his high school and college communities. Stupidity (or my being offended) is not cause enough to rescind.
That seems to be a point of contention in this incident. The Stoughton police determined that this didn’t meet the definition of hate crime, but it is clear that a number of teachers felt that the student wasn’t sufficiently disciplined for what they considered hate speech. The three teachers were disciplined after the parent of the student who made the swastika contended that the boy was being targeted by teachers.
Should a teacher be disciplined for rescinding a letter of recommendation? In this case it appears the teacher was suspended more for volunteering the reason for rescinding than the rescinding itself.
The fact that two other teachers were also disciplined suggests larger issues within the school. These kinds of incidents are teachable moments, and if teachers are prohibited from addressing them it leaves a void of rumor and innuendo that can make the issue much worse inside the school and in the community. I also wonder about the school’s procedure for reporting disciplinary offenses to colleges. If a school policy is to report nothing, then the only option a teacher would have to alert college officials about a student who might be dangerous would be through rescinding a recommendation.
Is this an isolated incident, or another example that offensive speech will come out of the closet in the Trump Era? Time will tell.