On writing letters of recommendation for students

As educators, one of our responsibilities is to assist the students we work with by writing recommendation letters in support of their applications for employment, further study, etc. Our students' decisions about their careers are hugely consequential, and they face a variety of material pressures upon moving into employment. It is therefore our responsibility to both ensure that our support of our students does not bolster oppressive structures, and also to provide resources to help students make realistic, ethical career decisions.

We therefore suggest that educators prepare informational text like the following (posted on their personal websites or simply kept on hand), to send to students requesting letters of recommendation. We regard the decision to write, or refuse to write, a letter based on its intended use as a matter of academic freedom.

Here are some examples. Here is the suggested text, which anyone is free to use verbatim or in modified form:

In general, I am happy to write a letter of recommendation for anyone who has taken a class with me. The purpose of this page is for students to get a feel for the process of asking for one, and to lay out clearly when I will not be willing to write a letter so that no one feels blind-sided.

As a matter of moral principle, I will not write letters of recommendation for programs or jobs involving any of the following:

- Policing (including but not limited to predictive policing, development of algorithms that predict recidivism, etc.);
- Military applications (such as internships at the Department of Defense or any of its international counterparts);
- Weapons manufacturing, broadly construed;
- Intelligence gathering (such as internships at the NSA, FBI, or any international counterpart).
- Insert your own!

I am very happy to discuss this policy with any student who has questions. Conversations about when and how mathematics should be used are lacking in our community, so in fact I encourage questions and discussion! However, this policy is non-negotiable. Therefore, if it's invoked when I am asked to write a letter, know that it is not personal.

The Just Mathematics Collective has compiled a list of resources for students on making ethical career decisions, which is available here.

Having understood that, if you need me to write a letter for you, please send me an email! This should detail when you need the letter, what it is for, why the opportunity interests you, and why I am the right person to write the letter. Please include clear instructions for submitting the letter once it's written. If possible, please include some sort of resume/CV --- it doesn't have to be official --- detailing your past experiences relevant to the application. All of that will help me to write the most effective letter I can.

Finally, my colleagues and I all write many such letters each year. It's a very important part of our job, and we want to do it as well as possible. So, when requesting letters from any of us, please give as much advance notice as possible, ideally something more than one month.

Our understanding is that writing letters of recommendation is rarely a contractual obligation, although there are instances of university administrations interpreting this in various ways. If refusing to write letters in support of applications, it is important to apply the policy uniformly, for the sake of both actual and perceived fairness. If you have concerns about the risks of taking this action, please consult your employment contract, speak to a union representative if you have one, or contact us.