Checking Up on Your Past

More colleges are conducting full background reviews of potential employees -- and debating whether faculty positions should be covered.
November 12, 2007

It probably shouldn't be surprising in the year of the Virginia Tech murders and the scandal over the Massachusetts Institute of Technology admissions dean who didn't have the degrees she claimed. More colleges are starting or considering policies to require background checks on potential employees.

At the annual meeting last week of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, sessions on background checks were attracting strong interest -- with one so packed that people were sitting on the floor and in the hallway. Several companies that specialize in background checks for the business world were at the meeting as exhibitors for the first time, saying that they were seeing significant increases in inquiries and contracts from colleges.

At least one company was created recently to focus on background checks in academe and one of its special features is that in addition to checking databases of criminal records and sexual offenses, it will check blogs and Internet discussion groups for material that may concern a hiring committee.

In the hallways after sessions, human resources experts were trading horror stories about résumés that didn't check out and their frustrations with the way some background policies are being set up. The top point of contention: Should the checks be done on potential faculty members or just other employees?

"The reputation of universities is being undermined by behavior that could or should be prevented at the point of entry," said 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. In its first 18 months of operations, the company has signed up 10 colleges as clients.

Hughes presented a survey she conducted recently of HR officials at colleges nationally. She found that only 13 percent never engage in criminal background checks. Eight-seven percent do the checks for some staff positions, 40 percent for some faculty positions, and 26 percent for some student workers. The way the survey was phrased, a "Yes" answer meant only that in some cases, a person in that category would be subject to a background check. That means that a college that would investigate a potential professor being hired in a field where security clearances are necessary or for work with young children would have answered Yes even if the vast majority of professorial hires are never subjected to a criminal background check.

Most of the colleges that start background checks do not perform them on current employees, although some will do so if someone is promoted to a new position.

Colleges in the Hughes survey that do require criminal background checks were asked why they started. Among the top answers: request by senior official (36 percent), state legislation permitting or requiring such checks (24 percent), and experiencing a scandal (9 percent).

Hughes said that many colleges feel that the issue of criminal background checks is one that puts them in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" position. Colleges fear the backlash from employees or potential employees who object to the screening. Likewise, they fear being sued if an employee engages in any number of forms of misconduct that could have been predicted or at least seen as a risk because of a prior record.

Colleges should do background checks on everyone, Hughes told the group at CUPA-HR, although she acknowledged that many of her clients don't follow that advice. She said that the most common objection she hears is that faculty members don't need to be checked out unless they are in "security sensitive" positions. But, asked Hughes, what is more security sensitive than a job whose position means the holder will meet privately one-on-one with students, and will have access to some of their educational records?

Institutions that do checks on staff but not faculty positions risk alienating their non-academic employees and also risk perceptions of bias, she said. She noted that at many campuses, the non-faculty workforce is considerably more diverse than the faculty, and she said it raised questions for institutions to do more thorough checks on an employee group whose members are more likely to be minority.

As to faculty objections that criminal background checks could deny positions to someone who once engaged in civil disobedience or who made a foolish decision 20 years ago, Hughes said that was not necessarily the case. "We're looking for patterns of behavior," she said, adding that she would never recommend to a hiring committee that someone be rejected for a single, minor incident long in the past.

In hall discussions after Hughes spoke, several HR professionals said that they agreed in theory with Hughes, but that their institutions either had or were considering policies for staff and were not considering similar policies for faculty positions generally. Senior administrators either don't want to fight with the faculty on this issue, or fear anything that might place the institution at a disadvantage in recruiting star professors, the HR officials said. Several said that they thought this approach was a double standard (and that they did not want to be identified making that statement).

The American Association of University Professors opposes routine criminal background checks for faculty hires and has suggested that "a sense of proportion" is needed on the issue.

"The privacy of a candidate [for employment] should be compromised only as necessary in order to secure information that may ensure that applicants are qualified to meet the particular obligations of specific positions," according to the AAUP statement on criminal background searches. "While it is possible that a search of criminal records might disclose information that could reasonably be thought to have a negative bearing on a particular candidate's suitability for a faculty position, such a discovery must surely be rare. Undertaking such searches is highly invasive of an applicant's privacy and potentially very damaging."

Some of the background check companies at the meeting said that they believed it was legitimate to avoid doing searches on faculty members.

Lester Rosen, president of Employment Screening Resources, said that his company -- which focuses on the business world and health care -- gets its growing higher education business from clients wanting screening for non-academic employees or for vendors who will have access to areas where students live or study. Rosen's company has around 25 colleges and universities as clients and he said that business from academe has doubled in the last few years. (Like the others in his business at the CUPA-HR meeting, he declined to name clients, citing confidentiality needs.)

He said that investigating faculty hires was "highly charged politically" and that he thought that it was fair to distinguish between faculty searches, which are usually long and involve multiple stages, and other searches. Of the decision to start doing background checks, Rosen said that "it's not all or nothing" as long as a college can point to a rationale for looking at some groups and not others.

Validity Screening Solutions, another company at the meeting, has more than 100 colleges and universities as clients, said Kristin Smith, client services manager for the company's academic division. Higher education clients have doubled since 2004, she said.

A little more than half of the higher education clients are in health professions education. State laws increasingly bar licensure of health professionals with various convictions, and health professions schools don't want to admit or enroll those who will never be licensed. Background searches of criminal records and sex offender databases costs $35.50 each -- a fee typically paid by the student. The rest of Validity's business is with colleges wanting potential employees checked out. Fees vary based on what kind of search a college wants.

Ann Franke, president of Wise Results, a firm that advises colleges on legal risks, said that if colleges start doing more background checks, a key issue is to determine how to use the information gathered.

"Lots of schools are eager to collect the info but then not adept at using it," she said. "Who will evaluate the information and make decisions about individuals' suitability for employment or enrollment? What is the impact of a conviction more than 10 years old? How do you judge the relative severity of different types of crimes and plea agreements? I picked up a glossary the other day of terms commonly used in criminal background checks. Do evaluators know the difference between community service and community supervision? Nolle prosequi and nolo contendere?"


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