The decreasing value of an academic reference

Guardian Royal logo, via WikipediaA New York woman who says she cannot find a job is suing the college where she obtained a bachelor’s degree, because the college’s Office of Career Advancement did not provide her with the leads and career advice it had promised. (Update: Registrarism ponders the possibility of a similar claim in the UK, not least because, as the Guardian recently commented, as the recession bites hard, the options for new graduates look frighteningly limited). Perhaps someone somewhere along the line didn’t write her a good enough reference. If you don’t write a good enough reference, you might get sued: that’s one of the lessons of Spring v Guardian Royal Insurance [1995] 2 AC 296, [1994] UKHL 7 (07 July 1994). Moreover, the fear that subjects could have access to references under the Freedom of Information and Data Protection regimes is making referees less candid and thus less helpful. On the other hand, if you over-egg the pudding, there’s little value in what you write. Nevertheless, the trend now is to write paeans of uncritical praise rather than to analyse the candidates strengths and weaknesses. For example, Mary Beard has recently commented:

Anyone who has been involved in academic job interviews and selection … knows how important the references are. … Anyone who has recently been involved will also know how difficult it is to get a supportive but honest assessment. The current rhetoric is of unadulterated praise, sometimes (I fear) laughably dishonest. It’s worse among American referees, but the Brits are fast catching up. …

It is the same in Ireland, in my experience. Indeed, Ferdinand von Prondzynski has recently gone so far as to say:

I cannot remember when I last read a reference that made even a minor difference to my perception of a candidate for a job.

So, what’s to be done? Is there a way to discount the hyperbole? Can the writing of (more) honest references be re-incentivised? I confess I don’t have the answers to these questions, but then neither Mary Beard nor Ferdinand von Prondzynski has either.