The Case of the Reluctant Recommender

Did the professor act ethically or unethically? What would you do?

Posted Feb 19, 2018

Consider this case:

Ms. Tate is a graduating senior.  She is working in the lab of Dr. Hayes, a very productive professor involved in several ongoing research studies.  Ms. Tate had agreed at the beginning of the year to join one team of students on a particularly interesting and challenging research project.  Ms. Tate would help (a) design the study, (b) collect the data, (c) analyze the data, (d) write up the results, and (e) prepare the study for publication.  All this would be done by the middle of May, the end of the academic year.  In return for her work, Ms. Tate will receive academic credit for an “independent study” course.

Ms. Tate is an excellent student who decides to apply to graduate school.  Early in the spring semester, she asks Dr. Hayes to write a letter of recommendation, which Dr. Hayes is happy to do.  She’s written hundreds of them.  In her letter, Dr. Hayes tells the graduate admissions committees that Ms. Tate is a very bright student who has been involved since the beginning of their current study and who will be involved in writing up the results for publication.

As often happens in school, Ms. Tate gets a little behind schedule in her courses.  She needs some extra time to catch up and maintain her very high GPA.  The good news, however, is that one of the graduate programs to which she has applied has accepted her!

At the same time, as often happens in research, things got behind schedule with the research study.  Data collection took a bit longer to complete, and the data analysis was a little tricky and slow.  Now it’s late in the spring semester—crunch time for students—and the study is only now ready to be written up.

Ms. Tate comes into Dr. Hayes’s office to let her know that because of her other academic commitments, she won’t be able to help in the write-up as much as she’d thought.  She can do some of the outlining and planning, but not the actual drafting that everyone on the team thought she’d be a part of.  Furthermore, she needs some time to prepare for graduate school, and to travel, so she’ll be leaving the project right at the end of the semester.  Some other students will be working on the project through the summer, although that was not part of the original agreement.

Dr. Hayes reacts angrily.  She understands that academic commitments build up at the end of the semester, but she reminds Ms. Tate of the independent study contract.  Dr. Hayes says that Ms. Tate will be getting a B grade for the independent study rather than an A.  Dr. Hayes also suggests that not working through the summer is essentially a breach of contract and reflects poorly on Ms. Tate’s motivation.  At the end of this difficult conversation, Dr. Hayes says that if Ms. Tate does not stay until the end, then she (Dr. Hayes) will have to rescind her letters of recommendation.  Apparently, she says, Ms. Tate is not as motivated and dedicated to psychology as her letters suggested, and that graduate programs should know this.  Dr. Hayes asks Ms. Tate to reconsider her plans about participating in the research study.

If we were discussing this case in my ethics class, my first questions to students would be:  Did Dr. Hayes act ethically or unethically?  In what ways?  Alternatively, I could have stopped the action right after Ms. Tate told Dr. Hayes what was happening and asked you to consider the choices Dr. Hayes had for how to respond.  (I’ve written about timing of case discussions in a previous blog.)

After each student reached a judgement about whether Dr. Hayes acted ethically or unethically, I would ask them to justify their judgment—what school policy, law, ethical principle, educational tradition, etc., might Dr. Hayes be upholding or violating?  Of course, she may be upholding some and violating some at the same time.

The next step in the discussion would be an activity I’ve called “testing the limits.” Here’s the basic question: What facts of the case would have to be different for your determination to be different?  At first, we would take an easy one:  What if the contract between Dr. Hayes and Ms. Tate clearly stated that Ms. Tate’s commitment ended on May 15 and Ms. Tate did everything she was required to do up until that date?  In this variation of the case, Dr. Hayes’s behavior would be clearly unethical.  Alternatively, what if Ms. Tate falsified data in order to finish the project?  In this case, Dr. Hayes not only would be within her rights to send a letter to graduate programs with her reservations—she might be obligated to do so.

To further our discussion, we could vary the gender and/or cultural backgrounds of our two protagonists.  What if Dr. Hayes were not an accomplished researcher, but rather just going up for tenure needing another paper or two?  What if Ms. Tate was borderline student?  A first-generation college student who didn’t know how things worked?  What if Ms. Tate had worked for Dr. Hayes for two full years with an impeccable record?  What if Dr. Hayes hadn’t sent the letter yet?  What other facts are not in the case study (or are ambiguous) would you want to know (or clarify) before you make a definitive judgment?

© 2018 by Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved