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13 November 2012

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Mark Lance
1.

I suspect it is illegal to reveal such information in a letter in the US. It is certainly illegal of a hiring department to ask. It is also illegal for a university to reveal any information without written permission from the student. Now students do legally request letters of recommendation. But I would assume that this gives one permission merely to write about the student's qualifications for a job, not their marital or other personal status. I'd love to hear what lawyers out there have to say on this.

The ethical issue you seem most concerned with can be raised without the complicating factor of the relationship. Basically, as I understand it, you are asking about the ethics of decisions based on a consequentialist calculation regarding what is best overall for a group of students that harms the marginal utility of the best students. This arises in cases like this: dept D is a respected by mid-ranked department. D has two students in the same field (and sub-field). s is a potential star. t is good, but clearly looks less good than s. A background belief, given the reputation of D (one that I think is true): hiring departments are very unlikely to interview two students in a given sub-field from D. So the question arises whether the department should encourage, require, pressure, etc s not to apply to certain jobs, say those at lower ranked schools, which aren't high on s's list of desires, so as to give t a better shot at a job.

There are, of course, all sorts of complicated ethical issues that surround revealing partner-issues specifically. They don't just arise in the case of a letter. But I thought it was useful to separate out the general consideration of utility vs meritocracy (slogans, not analysis) and the issue of partner-disclosure. fwiw, I think that it is justified to prefer utility over merit (slogan again) in a carefully calibrated way that involves consultation with all the students involved. I have no firm views about the tangle around partners, except that I'm pretty sure I think that mentioning it in a letter is wrong regardless of legality. I think the latter because this seems to me to be a paradigm of the messily contextual. there are so many factors that vary from case to case, hiring department to hiring department, etc. and once this is in a letter it is out there up front for every department to see. In contrast, if it is revealed in the cover letter, a student can make the decision to inform, can make it in a contextual way that applies to the particular job, and can in some cases put this information off until later stages when it may well be better revealed. So while the ethical complexities are, I think, great, I'm pretty sure that letters are too blunt an instrument.

Rebecca Kukla
2.

What Mark said. But also it is odd that you set this all up without any mention of talking to the couple about what they do or don't want disclosed about them at this stage in the process,

Eric Schliesser
3.

Good point, Rebecca! But let's not ignore reality that when it comes to the market PhD students are also very suggestible by their supervisors.

Rebecca Kukla
4.

No, that's right, and important - but making *any* decision about this (and especially a decision to disclose!) without consulting carefully and in detail with the students seems to me to be clearly unacceptable.

Eric Schliesser
5.

Agreed.

David Hyder
6.

"I suspect it is illegal to reveal such information in a letter in the US."


LOL!!

Jonathan
7.

I would never do it, and I would consider it strange and unprofessional were I to read a letter in which someone else had. Every discipline has its own norms, obviously enough, and it could be that this kind of thing would pass in philosophy, but in english it would seem inappropriate and it would reflect poorly on the recommender.

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