On November 1, 2021, MacDowell, the prestigious artists’ residency in Peterborough, NH, temporarily suspended the reference letter requirement on its application. “We’ve been hearing for some time that reference letters are a barrier to equitable and fair treatment of all artist populations,” admissions director Courtney Bethel said in the announcement. To try to increase “equity and access,” MacDowell would experiment with eliminating them. The residency, where artists and writers hole up in cabins for months and famously have their lunches delivered in quaint straw baskets, adjusted application periods to deal with the tidal wave they knew would result.
I was heartened by the announcement. MacDowell was founded in 1907, the nation’s first residency. If they got rid of reference letters, maybe others would, too. Reference letters, in addition to just being a pain in the ass, have an anti-Semitic origin story in the U.S. “In the 1920s, the heads of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton decided they were admitting too many Jewish students,” writes Sarah Todd in a recent article for Quartz, citing Jerome Karabel’s history of Ivy League admissions, The Chosen. “Until that point, acceptances had been determined largely by students’ scores on entrance exams, giving administrators little control over who made the cut.” The letters were instituted as a subjective criterion, a way to say, well, yes, this Jewish student over here has higher test scores, but this non-Jewish student has a glowing recommendation from an alum, so.
That the practice has endured at the undergraduate level is bad enough; that it has been adopted by most higher-level literary institutions in the country, all of whom claim diversity as a central aim, is revolting. The letters were not only born of discrimination, but carry it forward. For a writer to know someone they can ask for a reference, especially one that might move the needle, means they have already been admitted to an exclusive institution, or more likely, several. Those who haven’t — marginalized people, people who cannot afford to attend a fancy university, people with no generational connections, people who do not live in literary New York City — are out of luck.
At many of the residencies that require them, the stated purpose of recommendations is to determine how well applicants will fare in a collaborative environment. When I have had residencies, the nature of this "collaboration" has usually boiled down to occasional studio visits and having a fun time with the other residents at dinner. While having fun at dinner is important, I’m not sure such a stringent vetting process is necessary.
One begins to suspect the real goal is to create a criterion so odious, so socially uncomfortable, that it dissuades applicants, even those who might know someone who could write one. No one wants to dredge up the email address of their thesis advisor from five years ago. No one wants to ask their more successful acquaintance for yet another favor. It keeps the numbers down: that is its real purpose.
The statistics MacDowell gave me about their trial period seem to support this theory: since recommendations were suspended, they’ve seen a 100 percent increase in applications (1,500 in 2021 to 3,000 in 2022). Despite the deluge, Bethel told me via email that their selection process has not changed. She said, “some applicants have indicated that the removal of the reference letter requirement enabled them to feel qualified to apply.” Given this response, the admissions staff is recommending that their board permanently suspend the requirement.
Eliminating recommendations is not a fix for the many inequalities inherent in these institutions, but MacDowell’s decision made me wonder why everyone else — not just residencies but MFA programs and fellowships, too — hasn’t taken this initial step. I reached out to some of the most prestigious literary programs in the country to try to find out. Over the course of three weeks, I contacted the heads of each program, except where organizations were opaque with staff contact information. In these few cases, I used the general contact information for the program. I asked them all three questions:
- What function do recommendations serve in your selection process?
- Would your program consider eliminating this requirement and why?
- Letters of recommendation were first introduced by universities in the 1920s to keep Jewish people out of Ivy League schools, and currently they perpetuate the exclusion of applicants with fewer connections, especially those from marginalized backgrounds. How does your organization square this history and these ongoing effects with your stated commitment to diversity initiatives as spelled out on your program’s website?
The director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which requires two recommenders and touts a commitment to a “diverse educational environment,” did not respond to multiple queries. The director of the Michener Center in Austin, which requires three recommendations and whose website says that its candidates’ “backgrounds and experiences are equally diverse,” did not respond to multiple queries. The director of the creative writing program at Cornell University, which requires three recommendations and where the university at large “strives to be an inclusive and welcoming environment for a diverse community of students, staff, and faculty,” declined to answer my questions. The director of the NYU MFA program, which requires three letters of recommendation, aims “to be an antiracist community, working against white supremacy, racism, religious intolerance, and discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality, class, age, and ability,” did not respond to multiple queries. The director of the Stanford University creative writing program, home of the Wallace Stegner Fellowship, which requires two recommenders and states on its site that its “students are diverse in style and experience, with talent and seriousness the true common denominators,” did not respond to multiple queries. The Guggenheim Fellowship, which requires four recommenders and offers fellowships “under the freest possible conditions and irrespective of race, color, or creed,” did not respond to multiple queries. The Steinbeck Fellowship at San José State University, which requires three letters of recommendation and is open to “emerging writers of any age and background,” did not respond to multiple queries. The Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton, home of the Hodder Fellowship, which asks for three recommenders and commits to “holding power accountable and questioning hierarchies through creation, critique, activism, advocacy, and transparency”; “perpetually broadening our concepts of inclusion”; and “reaching out to the overlooked and the underserved” did not respond to multiple queries.
The Elizabeth George Foundation, which “makes grants to writers and to organizations benefiting disadvantaged youth, particularly in the area of the art,” lists no requirements on its website, but insists you request an informational brochure by mail via postcard. A writer who received the brochure told me the foundation requires no less than five letters of recommendation. Finding no contact email on the website, I requested information via postcard. I could only include two of my Qs due to space:
The Elizabeth George Foundation did not respond to my query.
I did get a couple of responses, though. The people who responded were adamant that the recommendation letters mostly don’t factor in, that they aren’t considered during the review process, that they are introduced later, in the final round or after decisions have been made. None of this actually matters — the deterrent is at the level of deciding to apply. But I’ll tell you what they said anyway.
Carol Becker, dean of Columbia University School of the Arts which houses the university’s MFA program (three recommenders; committed to "creating an environment that honors the rich diversity of our community") said, “We haven’t really had these conversations about recommendations. But I will say this, what matters most, and this is true for all our programs, is the work presented.” Gale Nelson, academic program director overseeing the MFA at Brown University (three letters of recommendation; committed to “protesting and addressing anti-Black violence, systemic and entrenched racism, and the ongoing legacy of historic racism”), said they are just complying with larger graduate school requirements: “We follow the Graduate School's guidelines, but make our recommendations based primarily on the candidate's manuscript, not the other materials.”
Elaina Richardson, president of Yaddo, the residency in Saratoga Springs, NY which requires one recommender and aims “to be actively anti-racist; to continuously prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in the composition of our residents, staff, funders and board,” disputed the idea that reference letters at residencies are a part of the same racist lineage as reference letters in academia. References were added at Yaddo in the mid-20th century to bring equity to a system that was even more gate-keepy — people on the inside chose artists for the residency with a “tap on the shoulder.” Richardson said she sees the references as “an advocate in the room,” someone speaking up for the applicant. She also said they “don't use it in the choosing.”
In case all this is bumming you out, there’s some good news, too. Richardson told me the requirement is “not a fixed item for us” and is reconsidered regularly. Hedgebrook, the Whidbey Island, WA residency for women, is looking critically at their current and historical practices, which include one personal and one professional reference, and “nothing is off the table for elimination.” William Belcher, who recently took over as president of Ucross, a residency in Clearmont, WY, told me his team is discussing “how adjusting requirements could help us reach more artists, including those from marginalized backgrounds.” Another Wyoming residency, Jentel Arts in Sheridan, did away with traditional recommendations years ago. Now they require three “character statements” from people who know the daily work habits of the applicant, which are read by executive director Mary Jane Edwards to screen out the “disrespectful, demanding, over needy.”
Is there a substantive difference between a character statement and a professional reference? I’ll let you decide. Still, Edwards denounced traditional recommendations. “Why this practice of letters of reference continues?” she said. “Up until now, no one questioned the system and prejudice and oppression it perpetuates.”
Almost ten years ago, at the MFA program I attended at the University of New Hampshire (three recommendation letters; zero gestures to diversity in its materials), one of my professors gave me a directive. She said, “If and when the gate swings open for you, you must reach back a hand.” She was right, but I’d go further. As writers of my generation gain entry into these elite institutions, we have to try to dismantle the systems that hold people down. We have to, at the very least, ask a few questions.
Erin Somers is a reporter at Publishers Lunch.