Policies Changed For Letters of Recommendation

Drew Kaplan ’20, Editor-In-Chief

The Office of the Registrar has announced a new system for documenting letters of recommendation written by faculty members for students. However, faculty members have expressed confusion as to whether the system is active or not, while students have been largely unaware that any change has occurred, with those having heard of it questioning its usefulness. 

Registrar Mary Ann Leidigh explained that, under the new system, students will need to request letters of recommendation from faculty “by use of an on-line form.” This form asks for the name of the faculty member, their email address, the purpose for which the letter is required, and the name, address, and email to which the letter will be sent. “Once the student submits the form, a copy of the electronic form is stored in their academic file,” Leidigh said, “at the same time, an email is automatically generated to alert the faculty or staff member that the form has been completed, thus providing the necessary permission for academic information to be shared.” Leidigh noted that the form provides authorization to faculty broadly, so that if students request additional letters from one faculty member, “the student does not need to complete an additional form for a faculty or staff member for whom the student has already provided consent.” Leidigh also noted that the form is not necessary for letters which remain internal to the college, such as those for study abroad or the Pre-Health program.

Leidigh noted that the change has been made to better comply with the requirements of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). “The purpose of FERPA is to protect a student’s privacy with respect to their academic information,” explained Leidigh, “this important legislation prevents the disclosure of the student’s class schedule, grades and GPA (among other information) without their expressed, written consent.” Leidigh noted that “Dickinson College has a responsibility to comply with all Federal Regulations.”

Provost Neil Weissman echoed Leidigh’s sentiments regarding FERPA compliance. “There are regulations about FERPA that apply to letters of recommendation and our goal is to be in compliance,” Weissman stated. He added that the policy has not yet been made active, noting that the policy is still under review by the All-College Committee on Academic Program and Standards (APSC). APSC chair Associate Professor of Political Science Toby Reiner declined to comment. 

Some faculty members, however, have already begun to abide by the new regulations. Visiting Assistant Professor of Neuroscience Meredith Rauhut stated that she has “known about [the change] for about a month now. I understand why we have to do it.” Rauhut however questioned the necessity of the new system, stating “I don’t know of a single faculty member who does not hold onto their letters of recommendation, so I don’t know why the registrar feels the need to hold onto them.” Rauhut also expressed concern how information regarding the change has been communicated. “The students don’t even know about it, so that’s a huge problem. It puts the onus on me. […] I think there is probably a more concise and effective way to approach getting it done.”

Weissman noted that the college has not yet “implemented [the policy] because we are discussing what it will be. We are revising it in the direction of facilitating letters of recommendation.” Weissman also noted that the college “will look for multiple ways to communicate to students to make sure they know what they need to do and we will do the same for faculty.” Weissman explained that faculty will be made aware of this change in department meetings and by email, and that “in the short term dissemination of faculty is not a problem because of awareness of it. But we will try to be as comprehensive as possible.” 

“I think [faculty] will be looking for a change,” Weissman added.

“I feel like there’s a more efficient way this whole process can be done. It’s a colossal pain in the neck,” Rauhut stated, “I’m hoping the college will re-evaluate it.” 

Students expressed a lack of knowledge about the change. Aiden Pidgeon ’20 said “I haven’t heard anything about a new policy regarding letters of recommendation. I was only aware of the physics department internal guidelines, […] but I have not been made aware of any policy change on the college’s end.”

“I’ve never had to do this before, I’ve never even heard of it,” added Giuseppe Collia ’20.

However, some student support the new system. “It doesn’t sound that bad,” said Greg Edwards ’20, “I’m not personally familiar with the details of FERPA so I don’t know if that will complicate things, but I actually kind of like the idea of having my recommendation letters being managed by the registrar instead of being organized by a bunch of individual professors.”

Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies Ed Webb noted “Writing letters of recommendation is a very important part of our role as faculty and particularly as academic advisors. I hope we can find a method of complying with the law that does not introduce unnecessary friction into that process.”

Weissman added that the college is “working out the balance between what we feel we need to do and making it as frankly easy as possible for faculty to do letters of recommendation. […] Faculty are always enthused to do letters, they understand it’s important.” 

Leidigh explained that there has not been any changes regarding the interpretation of FERPA, rather that “the Registrar’s Office continually strives to implement the best practices in our office. The reason we have standardized the form and the process is to remain FERPA compliant.”