To address diversity, let’s discard reference letters

Academic endorsements cast little light while entrenching privilege, says Vincent Hiribarren

August 13, 2020
Dustbin with envelope inside
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For those who have read Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, one of the best campus novels of recent years, academic reference letters can be a source of amusement.

Written from the standpoint of a weary US professor, Schumacher’s mordantly funny 2014 book is composed of a year’s worth of recommendations for junior colleagues and lacklustre students. As in life, however, this epistolary novel never questions the existence or utility of these letters: reference letters are taken for granted and seen as an integral part of a well-established academic ritual.

Every year, hours of academics’ paid time are devoted to composing laudatory paragraph after paragraph in support of students applying for further study, scholarships or non-academic jobs, or colleagues angling for a new position, promotion or fellowship. And as an academic in a UK university, I have, of course, benefited from that. Yet we should ask ourselves what purpose reference letters really serve.

What do referees write? They explore the merits of an applicant but in a highly enigmatic, codified language, whose innuendo and allusion are increasingly difficult to discern between all those inflating lines of ultimately rather meaningless endorsement.

Lengthy letters full of hyperbole are unconvincing. If we really have to write reference letters, I’d be very much in favour of writing short statements instead of lengthy missives: haikus instead of hagiographies, in the words of the historian Guido Ruggiero.

Arguably, these letters help us to understand the quality of a candidate beyond what can be deduced from their application, CV and list of publications. They are, after all, written by trusted leaders in their field. At least, they purport to be. Yet it is hardly a secret that many referees around the world do not write their letters of reference. They merely sign and send letters pre-prepared by candidates themselves.

But the problems run deeper than this. For many students and early career scholars who have no official affiliation or are based in small universities, finding a suitable (let alone “distinguished”) referee can be challenging. I was lucky enough to be able to travel to academic gatherings in Europe and Africa, where I met friends and colleagues who could write references for me. But what about those who don’t have the time, physical ability or money for this kind of networking? In this way, the reference letter system may disadvantage poorer individuals, those with caring responsibilities and/or people with disabilities, potentially reinforcing gender, class, disability and racial imbalances within academia.

The problem is likely to be more acute during the pandemic. Obviously, a referee can write your reference only if they have met you. And while many seminars and conferences have moved online, virtual meetings do not offer the same opportunities to get to know someone properly.

We might also consider the type of personality it takes to ask a senior academic to write a reference for them; introverted scholars are less likely to succeed here. This can disadvantage them because, in a highly elitist fashion, we tend to lend more authority to letters written by academic luminaries – especially upper-class white males.

Indeed, this is a problem for extroverts, too, because it is common for such figures to write for only a select few; they have only so many hours in the day, after all. If a candidate cannot call on such referees, they will not be so easily accepted into what can be justifiably construed as an old boys’ network.

But even a reference from an academic luminary does not necessarily count for much. In a world where the number of students, scholars and disciplines has dramatically increased, even people who are celebrities in their own discipline, country or linguistic sphere are often unknown beyond it. This makes it impossible for outsiders to properly judge the merits of any letter they write.

Reference letters, in short, empower individuals who do not need more empowerment. Not only do they signal privilege, they also exacerbate inequalities within our classrooms and wider society. If we are serious about the need to advance equality and diversity in our profession, we should stop wasting our time reading, writing and requesting them and find a better way of judging candidates’ merits.

Vincent Hiribarren is a senior lecturer in modern African history at King’s College London.

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Reader's comments (2)

There is nothing in this article that justifies or provides any convincing evidence that letters of reference are biased towards those already privileged. If anything, a reference letter can create a level playing field. I
I'd agree with the comment above. I only write references for students I have taught or colleagues that I have worked with. I'd not dream of writing one for a casual acquaintance from a conference - nor of asking them to write one for me.