I came across an article in Inside Hire Ed that tells of a teacher who was suspended for revoking a letter of recommendation she had written for a student. The young man in question had displayed a swastika in his school. The article deals with the ethics of rescinding a recommendation from the perspective of its impact on the student. This seems wrongheaded to me. What they need to be thinking about is the impact that recommendation would have on the teacher.
I try to be careful about how I write my letters of recommendation. If I do not feel like I can write a strong letter, I say so. I try to say so gently. In some cases, I really am not comfortable making the recommendation. In others, I just may not feel like I know the person well enough to write something persuasive. Some teachers have a kind of template they modify for their students. (I’ve read those kinds of recommendations, and they suck!) But if you ask me for a letter of recommendation, I am going to spend a few hours writing it. It is an honor to be asked.
That is also why, if I were in that teacher’s shoes, I would have done the same thing, not because of what it would have meant for the student, but because of what it would have meant for me. When I write you a letter of recommendation, I am standing behind you and supporting you. If it turns out that I made a mistake about your judgment, or if there was this big part of your life that I did not know about (like your Klan rallies), then it is important for me to step back from my recommendation for two reasons. First, when I support you, I am also generally supporting what you do. Second, clearly I did not know you well enough to write the letter in the first place. That one’s on me. My credibility would have been damaged enough as it is; the least I can do is try to salvage it by doing the write thing, by not, to put it biblically, bearing false witness to your personal virtues and professional qualifications.
The question of the impact on the student is irrelevant. A recommendation that can no longer honestly be given must be rescinded. Were it left to stand, it would not be a recommendation at all. It would just be a lie.