The Truth is Powerful
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GlobalStock/istock/getty images plus As equity problems in the academy have come under necessary scrutiny, many academics have identified letters of recommendation as a common site for problems of increased inequity at the undergraduate, graduate and professional levels. In theory, letters of recommendation are meant to contextualize an applicant’s more formal documents and draw upon the ethos of more experienced professionals to assess the applicant’s skills and potential.
But, in practice, letters of recommendation are one of the mechanisms frequently used in academic and professional application processes that largely dehumanize and objectify individual applicants. In the worst circumstances, they are weaponized against candidates. Even well-meaning writers may write letters containing language bias or an inappropriate disclosure of personal information such as the applicant’s race, gender identity, sexuality, child-rearing status or disability.
Such problems are particularly acute because the applicant is vulnerable : they have little to no power to correct errors of fact, implication or perception. In fact, applicants may not be aware the problems exist at all, because colleges and universities can claim the responsibility of the letter writer is not to the applicant but to the institutions themselves—with some even requiring applicants to sign away their rights to see letters.