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Should Prospective Faculty Disclose Criminal Backgrounds?

March 7, 2008

An increasing number of colleges are conducting full background checks on potential new hires. But verifying a degree and searching for a police record are two very different exercises.

Whether the latter should be common practice is a hot question in human relations circles. So is the question of whether employees should have to disclose prior criminal convictions.

The University of Pennsylvania's Faculty Senate executive committee weighed in this week, opting to reject the idea of developing a uniform policy that would require prospective faculty to come forth with convictions. The vote comes at a time when the university is taking a broad look at its hiring practices. In the past several years, Penn professors have been the subjects of high-profile cases involving sex crimes and voluntary manslaughter.

Those faculty members are no longer teaching at Penn, but the conversation about how the university vets job applicants has continued. Vincent Price, the university's associate provost for faculty affairs, said the campus-wide look at hiring policies isn't a direct response to these cases, but rather a general effort to safeguard the campus.

But Larry Gladney, chair of the senate, and a professor of physics and astronomy, said there's no evidence that such a policy would protect people.

“The primary reason is that it’s just a question," Gladney said. "It's not verified. There's not to our knowledge any evidence that if you ask the questions it improves safety and decreases the rate at which crimes occur."

Gladney said that had a uniform self-disclosure policy been in place years ago, it still wouldn't have made a difference in the hiring of the professors who got into legal trouble, because none had criminal records prior to starting at Penn. But the university was rocked by the news that a convicted sex offender had been commuting from jail to take graduate school classes.

In some instances at Penn, prospective faculty are already required to list past convictions. It could be a case of a person whose job duties include working in a certain setting, or whose field's accrediting agency requires such a background check. The provost's office raised the question of whether the policy should be uniform, rather than on a case-by-case basis.

Not only was the faculty committee against that idea for colleagues, but the group also included in its response to the university a line saying that "furthermore, [the committee] does not support mandatory self-disclosure for any constituency at the university."

"Faculty didn't feel right about just making a statement about why there shouldn't be a uniform policy for other faculty when there are a number or arguments that also apply to other employees" Gladney said.

Price said it's much more common for the university's central hiring office to ask non-academic staff for self-disclosed convictions, although that, too, isn't a uniform policy.

"We know there are different views about specific policy," Price said. "We're going to continue, on the faculty side, working with schools and departments on practices that are designed to maintain safety. I don't think, given what the senate has said, that we'll be aggressively pursuing [the uniform faculty] policy."

Andy Brantley, chief executive officer of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, said many colleges not only have uniform policies on background checks on all employees, some also have such codes about self-disclosing prior convictions -- particularly at institutions tied to a state system.

"In my opinion it's an employer's right to know of any prior criminal convictions so that it can adequately assess the appropriateness of hiring that person," Brantley said. "There should be no exception to that for faculty or staff."

In asking for the information, Brantley said, it's important for the college to explain that disclosure of a conviction doesn't automatically take the candidate out of the running for a position.

Stephanie Hughes, an assistant professor of management at Northern Kentucky University who is president of Risk Aware, a company that specializes in background checks for colleges, said she often hears from professors the concern that petty prior convictions from an earlier era could stop well-qualified faculty from getting jobs or limit their mobility. Hughes said she considers that a "baseless argument."

(Members of Penn's executive committee raised questions about what would happen with the disclosed information and who would make decisions about how to respond.)

Hughes said she's found that while professors often object when their university decides itself to implement a uniform self-disclosure policy, when the directive comes from state lawmakers - as it sometimes does -- the faculty response is more muted.

A recent survey of HR officials conducted by Risk Aware found that 87 percent do criminal background checks for some staff positions, 40 percent for some faculty positions, and 26 percent for some student workers. Hughes said non-uniform campus policies have a way of dividing an institution.

"If staff were to be frank about the discussion, they would express, as they have to me, a frustration that faculty can opt out of the process and that they can't," she said. "In general, the idea is to create a safer campus. If a whole constituent group can opt out of the process, it seems the goal hasn’t been achieved.”

 

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