I've written many times over the years about the problems with The Intern Economy. Unpaid internships, which are especially rampant in fields like journalism and politics, are a class barrier that limits participation in a profession to young people who have external financial support. It doesn't say that explicitly, but we know exactly who can afford to live in very expensive cities (DC, Washington, London, LA, etc) for a year or two without getting paid.
As a general (but not absolute) rule, I don't write letters of recommendation for unpaid internships. More than a few people have criticized me for that over the years. Before I go on, let me point out that in the worst case for the student I simply get the department chair or another senior faculty member to write a letter. So it's not like the students are being turned out into the cold streets to die of exposure on my account.
I know it's an irritating stand to take. But think about it this way.
Suppose a student came asking for a recommendation for the Jordan Peterson Men's Rights and Eugenics Fellowship for Pale Young Virgin Boys. Or the Sons of the Confederacy Definitely Not Just for White People Scholarship. Or the Bob Jones University Gay Bashing and Fly Fishing Camp. What are my ethical obligation in that case?
Aside from the fact that nothing in any faculty contract obligates a faculty member to write a recommendation letter for any student, I'd venture that instead of being criticized for declining to write it I'd be subject to some form of public dragging if I did sign off on these examples. If any opportunity requiring a faculty recommendation was implicitly limited to only men, only white people, etc or was for an explicitly immoral purpose, no one would seriously question my refusal to provide a letter with the exception of aggrieved right wingers (Charlie Kirk would be en route to campus in a heartbeat, Ben Shapiro in tow).
It has never been clear to me why in terms of discrimination, diversity, and representation so many academics can see clearly things like race, gender, or sexual orientation while class apparently just isn't a thing. If a particular opportunity for professional entry / advancement is open only to people who cross a parental income threshold, it's not open to everyone. I won't call it "discriminatory" because throwing words like that around too often cheapens them, but it's certainly not something that gives every interested student a legitimate chance to get it.
We covered some of this same ground in last week's Lena Dunham post, and those points hold here. Unpaid internships are how you get entire professions lacking any meaningful diversity, drawn from the same elevated socioeconomic bubble, and full of assumptions that fail to hold for anyone who doesn't get a big external boost at crucial times in their lives.
I understand that a one-man crusade does nothing to solve the problem and ultimately, as an academic advisor, students get whatever they need to pursue whatever opportunity they want. If I don't want to write a letter I explain why and get them a better letter from senior faculty (nobody cares about the recommendation of a no-name assistant professor anyway). It's my way of trying to draw attention to how utterly unequal this system is in ways that would be readily apparent throughout my profession if, instead of class and wealth, we were talking about gender or race.