Litigation's a drag
June 30, 2009 12:33 PM   Subscribe

Can I ask my professor to recommend me to a university that she tried to sue (without destroying my chances at acceptance)?

I’m going to be applying to PhD programs this fall. I’m really excited to start the application process, and have some great professors lined up to write recommendations. One of these professors-- Professor X, if you will-- is probably going to be a strong point of my applications. She oversaw me writing the term paper I’m going to use as a writing sample, is seen as a leader in her field (i.e., the one I hope to enter), and is a MacArthur fellow. I’m really lucky to have her in my corner, but (there’s always a but) she was involved in a legal case with one of the schools I’m considering.

Without going into specifics, Professor X used to teach at top-tier School A. Over a decade ago, she was denied tenure for a reason she interpreted as discrimination, and she sued the school. Her case was dismissed before it reached trial, and she left School A to teach at equally green pastures. Her academic reputation doesn’t seem to have been hurt by this, so I’m not worried about recommendations I’ll be sending to schools B through Z.

Should I even approach her about writing a recommendation to School A? It’s not my top choice at the moment, but it’s up there and it's a good enough school that I shouldn't discount it. She’s never discussed this lawsuit with me, but it’s pretty well documented—should I even mention it? I could find someone else to recommend me for this particular application, but nobody with the same clout.

On the other hand, would School A see a recommendation from Professor X as a count against me? Is a lawsuit like this enough to make an institution see a former employee as a persona non grata, even if she is a respected scholar?

Apologies for all vagueness, but I’d really appreciate any advice on how to proceed without making everyone uncomfortable (and sabotaging an application).
posted by oinopaponton to Human Relations (13 answers total)
Probably shouldn't be a big deal, but... Depends on who's left at School A from Professor X's time there. And how vindictive they are. And whether or not any of the people on the admissions committee were named in the suit. Academic departments can change a great deal over that kind of time. It's possible that the people who were on the tenure & promotion committee back then have headed off for other positions, or retired, et cetera.

Don't hobble your applications by not using your best recommendations. If you don't get in to School A, don't blame it on this factor. If you want to blame it on this factor, comfort yourself by knowing you wouldn't want such vindictive jerks in charge of your graduate career, anyway.
posted by amelioration at 12:39 PM on June 30, 2009

How many faculty in the department you're applying to at School A are still there? How senior are they (if they're still there after 10 years, probably pretty senior)? Can you discreetly find out (google) if they were mentioned in or otherwise implicated in events that lead to the lawsuit?
posted by rtha at 12:39 PM on June 30, 2009

Or what amelioration said.

posted by rtha at 12:40 PM on June 30, 2009

You should use your best recommendations regardless.

That being said, it is an unfortunate fact of academic "politics" that Professor X's suit may reflect badly on you. It shouldn't, but it might anyway--depends entirely on the personalities of those making the decisions. There is nothing you can do about that, though. It's not your problem, it's the committee's problem (i.e. limiting their acceptances to less-than-ideal candidates for irrelevant reasons).
Good luck!
posted by reverend cuttle at 12:50 PM on June 30, 2009

Why don't you ask Professor X and see what she says? Regardless of this lawsuit ones advisor or references can either help or hinder -that's just the way it is...
posted by ob at 1:09 PM on June 30, 2009

I also think you should ask professor X. For all we know (though you may know and left the answer to this out), her case was not denied at the department level, and the department actually wanted to keep her. Also, I think it would look equally bad if you don't have a letter from her, given how important it seems she has been to your academic career (unless you hide that on the app, which is going too far).
posted by advil at 1:15 PM on June 30, 2009

Best answer: If you get a recommendation from her, and School A rejects you because they're still bitter about her, congratulations -- you have just been saved from a nest of vipers that you wouldn't want to spend ~5 years in anyway!
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:35 PM on June 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

Though it wouldn't hurt, if this is possible for you, to discreetly ask other faculty whether having Professor X write you a letter is smart. Here I'm playing off of your statement that the case was dismissed, by which I gather you mean a judge told her "You've got no case here, go away."

It may be that someone bringing such a case might have reputation in your field generally that you don't want to be associated with. Or, it could conceivably be the case that pressing such a case is indicative of a wider-ranging... off-the-handle-ness... such that any letter she writes for you might include things you don't want in a letter.

I don't think either is likely, and of course it's entirely possible that the case was settled rather than dismissed by a judge, or that Professor X asked that it be dismissed after securing New Job, or just that Old School had really REALLY good lawyers and the case had some some merit. But there are lots of dysfunctional weirdos in academia, and I could imagine someone bringing a groundless suit against their tenure-denying school, and such a person might be wonky in other ways.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:44 PM on June 30, 2009

You need to weigh up how important it is applying to school A vs all the tiptoeing around the issue with many known and unknown actors (and their consequential knowable and unknowable reactions to this) that are involved in this case.
posted by lalochezia at 2:31 PM on June 30, 2009

This seems like a reasonable thing to (diplomatically and in-person, if possible) ask ALL your letter-writers about. I'm assuming that your professors are linked by a shared scholarly field, and if that is the case, the other professors may have a keen idea of how Professor X's prize pupil is likely to be received at School A. It's not just that they know Professor X; they probably also know the players at School A. (Academia: it's a small world after all.)
posted by cabezadevaca at 3:54 PM on June 30, 2009

Ask her. She'll know what her relationship is with the people who are likely to be on the admissions committee. It might be very different from her relationship with the university as a whole, and it's the committee (i.e., faculty members from the department) that matter.
posted by paultopia at 7:36 PM on June 30, 2009

I disagree with paultopia. Your professor may not know what the admissions committee thinks of her, especially if any of them advised against her tenure and managed to keep it secret. Or perhaps someone has been grinding some other axe in secret and she doesn't know it. People can be sneaky. Doing all the research that has been suggested is a good idea, but you may never get enough information and what you get may not even be good. You might have to take a shot in the dark.
posted by halonine at 9:21 PM on June 30, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks! I was preparing myself to just not count on her recommendation for this school, but I'll reconsider. The nature of her lawsuit was political rather than personal, and as far as I can tell, the field has since begun to consider her claims as valid to a degree, although it was a district judge who dismissed the case. I think she has a former student now working in the same department at School A, so I might email her.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:03 AM on July 1, 2009

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