Proposed policy at Florida Gulf Coast raises question of what a university is entitled to track about faculty members
Florida Gulf Coast University faculty members aren’t arguing over whether the institution is entitled to know if they have a criminal background; laws and statutes protect an employer’s right to know. But a new fingerprinting proposal has stirred debate over just how much it needs to know about whom, and at what expense.
“I have no problem with a background check – I have nothing to hide,” said Win Everham, a member of Florida Gulf Coast’s Faculty Senate. “I have a large problem with anyone who wishes to waste tax dollars on an ineffective policy that fails to make us safer and makes us more vulnerable to lawsuits.”
Everham has been one of the more vocal opponents of the administration’s recent proposal to gather a full set of fingerprints from all prospective and current employees, but his views seem to reflect those of the Faculty Senate over all; since early November, the body has voted twice by an overwhelming margin to reject fingerprinting for each of the university’s approximately 1,100 employees.
Many colleges do basic background checks on new employees, and those who either work with young children or sensitive information frequently are subjected to more rigorous background checks, sometimes including fingerprinting. But across-the-board fingerprinting is unusual, and has some faculty advocates concerned.
In a resolution passed and reaffirmed last month, the senate rejects the background check policy in its current form and calls for a complete review of similar policies across the State University of Florida System, in addition to a more thoughtful consideration of which jobs on campus may legitimately require in-depth background checks.
The senate also wants a more thorough examination of the costs associated with the fingerprinting policy. As proposed, the university foots the bill – some $50 per person, which the senate estimates could cost the university a one-time fee of at least $55,000, plus ongoing expenses, as it faces $3.6 million in state budget cuts this year.
Douglas Harrison, Faculty Senate president, said the majority of faculty would seem to prefer a policy that more closely follows Florida statute on the matter: namely, that public institutions outline a process identifying which kinds of employees need basic background checks (called Level 1, which do not require fingerprinting and return statewide records only) and which kinds of employees require more thorough checks (referred to as Level 2, which include fingerprinting and return national criminal records).
According to Florida statute, each public agency “shall designate those positions that, because of the special trust or responsibility or special location, require security background investigations” at Level 2. The current Florida Gulf Coast proposal makes no such differentiation.
Everham also criticized the proposal for not addressing the many contracted employees who work on campus, often in close proximity to students, such as food service and housekeeping staff, nor the student body (he contends that a policy ignoring these groups could make the university more susceptible to lawsuits should a member of either be accused of a criminal act). But he rejected as "archaic" the idea that fingerprints are the only way to return national criminal records in the Internet age.
"If I am pulled over by the police, they check my criminal record using my driver's license and name," he said in an email. "If I purchase a gun in Florida, the store owner does a criminal check with the FBI using my name and social security number -- over the phone. If I am particularly interested in identifying sex offenders, the FBI has a free online searchable database. None of the above requires fingerprints."
The fingerprinting policy reflects Florida Gulf Coast's commitment "to the safety, security and health of its students, employees and others, as well as safeguarding the interests of the institution,” the current draft reads. The university's Board of Trustees proposed and unanimously approved the fingerprinting policy earlier this fall as a way to better protect minors on campus from potential criminals, reportedly following the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse case that rocked Pennsylvania State University in 2011. "It's prudent for us to do our due diligence and make sure we don't hire people like that," Florida Gulf Coast President Wilson Bradshaw told The Naples Daily News last month.
But the Faculty Council found fault with the regulation during what a university spokeswoman called the "implementing policy" phase. The university is receiving and considering feedback from the Faculty Council and other members of the community, she said. A revised draft of the policy will be posted later this week, when the university will accept feedback for 10 more days.
Representatives from Florida’s two largest institutions said some or all of their employees undergo a background check at hiring, but not all are fingerprinted. Florida State University runs basic background checks for those who work with cash or sensitive information, while a smaller percentage undergo fingerprinting (such as those who have lived outside the state for three consecutive years or who work with children or other vulnerable populations). The policy does not apply to faculty, whose backgrounds are checked only when federal or state law requires (such as those working with summer camps or vulnerable populations) or as outlined in a contract or grant. The University of Florida completes basic background checks for all new employees, including faculty, but only collects fingerprints for out-of-state applicants or those whose job descriptions require it.
It's unclear how common the practice is nationally. The College and University Professional Association for Human Resources doesn't track fingerprinting practices, a spokeswoman said.
The American Association of University Professors opposes “indiscriminate” fingerprinting of all faculty, said Gregory Scholtz, associate secretary and director for academic freedom, tenure and governance. AAUP recommendations on the matter include a “principle of proportionality” against searching criminal records of all applicants for all faculty positions. For an ordinary faculty appointment, the AAUP argues that the costs of opening a wide search into a candidate’s background to return possibly inaccurate, irrelevant personal information that could make the university legally vulnerable to due care concerns outweigh the potential gains.