A Ku Indeed!

Refusing to Recommend Students for Paternalist Reasons

Posted in Pedagogy by Chris on February 8, 2008

One of my fellow In Socrates’ Wake blog-contributors, Michael Cholbi, argued in this thread at ISW that it may, in fact, be ethically permissible to refuse to write a recommendation letter for a student for paternalistic reasons. Click on the link for a continuation of the discussion (I’m a participant in the discussion comments myself). I’m reproducing the discussion here, however, to see what people here think. I’m especially interested in hearing what students have to say about it. I reproduce Cholbi’s post below the fold.

(below is Cholbi’s post)
Is it ever ethically defensible for an instructor to decline a student’s request to write a letter of recommendation? I don’t have in mind two common situations where it’s probably defensible to decline because you’d write a ‘bad’ letter: either you don’t know the student well enough to write a credible or well-informed letter, or you know the student too well and the only letter you could honestly write would be sufficiently negative that it would hurt the student’s chances. I have in mind situations where you might decline for paternalistic reasons.

Let me describe two such situations I recently faced:

  1. A student asked me to write a letter of recommendation so that she could transfer to a local private college. She is an above average but not great student, so I’d put her chances of admission at 50-50. But I have very little respect for the college she’s considering and would not recommend students attend there: Its reputation is as a playground for bored, well-to-do southern California kids; its faculty is rather undistinguished; and it costs five times as much as the public university where I teach. The student is under the impression that a degree from this college will prove more prestigious or lucrative.
  2. A talented student who had long been considering graduate study in philosophy or religious studies unexpectedly asked me to write a letter in support of applications to law school. This student has a very scholarly demeanor and would probably have a rewarding academic career. It emerged in conversation that his parents don’t support his pursuing the academic path and are pushing him toward a legal career. I honestly believe that he’d be unhappy as a lawyer and that path would be time and money ill used.

In both cases, I ended up writing the letters but wonder if it’s permissible for me to say no: My reasons are obviously paternalistic. I ought to promote my students’ well-being and respect their autonomous choices (though in situation 2, those choices aren’t so obviously autonomous) so long as those choices do not themselves involve or support unethical conduct. But in writing students these letters I’m more than not interfering with those choices; I’m actually promoting the ends they have chosen. And am I obligated to do so even when, in my considered professional judgment, those ends are not the best ends for them to pursue? I think of letter writing as part of an imperfect duty of beneficence, but isn’t that duty best fulfilled by my assisting students in ways that will actually prove beneficial to them? Certain analogous situations come to mind: I’ve dissuaded students from becoming philosophy majors on paternalistic grounds and I’ve refused to admit students to my overenrolled courses because the course would simply be too difficult for them. I feel fairly confident that those are justified instances of paternalism. Does declining to write recommendation letters in these situations fall into a similar ethical category?

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One Response

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  1. Amy said, on February 8, 2008 at 11:54 pm

    I don’t think it’s appropriate to refuse to write a letter because you perceive it to be in the student’s best interest. Treating the student like a thinking person would involve explaining why they’re making a bad decision, not in trying to force them to do what you think is best.


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