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Akron Backs Down on DNA

November 9, 2009

The University of Akron is getting ready -- at the recommendation of its general counsel -- to change a new policy that told anyone being hired that they had to be willing to offer a DNA sample as part of a required security clearance for new employees.

The university maintains that its DNA policy -- an approach unheard of in academe and widely questioned on the campus -- was misunderstood and never was intrusive in the way its critics charged. But through its general counsel, the university has now endorsed the idea of changing it, pending board approval.

The policy was adopted by Akron's board in August, but became widely known only last month, when Matt Williams, an adjunct, quit teaching mid-semester to protest, saying at the time: "It's not enough that the university doesn't pay us a living wage, or provide us with health insurance, but now they want to sacrifice the sanctity of our bodies."

In an interview Friday, after the release of the university's statement from its general counsel, Williams said that Akron officials had been slow to admit their error, but "I am glad to see that they have come to their senses." (While the requirement bothered non-adjunct employees as well, adjuncts pointed out that because they were being hired and rehired, they were effectively subject to semester-by-semester DNA checks, unlike those hired for permanent positions.)

The general counsel's letter was sent to the Faculty Senate, which on Thursday unanimously approved a strongly worded resolution calling for the university's board to rescind the DNA requirement. The resolution said that the Faculty Senate was never consulted about the policy, that it is "of doubtful legality," that the absence of rules for how DNA would be used "invites abuse and risks legal liability," that the rule "is far broader than is warranted by the university's legitimate interest in providing a safe environment for its students, employees, and campus visitors," and that the requirement "poses a serious threat to the personal privacy of university employees."

The resolution also said that the rule would be likely to continue to attract negative publicity to the university.

As the Faculty Senate prepared to vote, it received a letter from Ted A. Mallo, the general counsel. In the letter, he said that the DNA requirement was not in the original version of the security policy approved by the board, but was added "during discussion among trustees" about whether DNA results would in the future displace fingerprinting as a primary means of identification in investigations. Mallo's letter said that he was recommending a policy change to the board, to "clarify the intent" of the security check provisions.

The new language would remove the willingness to submit a DNA sample as a requirement for new employees. Instead, the proposed language says: "Certain positions at the university of Akron, if required by law or contract, will be subject to both state of Ohio and federal criminal background checks regardless of how long the preferred candidate has resided in Ohio. The candidate may be required by the law enforcement agency to provide additional information which is needed by the law enforcement agency for purposes of conducting the criminal background check."

Laura Martinez Massie, director of media relations at Akron, said via e-mail that the "university's goal has all along been to do all it can to provide a safe living and learning environment for our students and a safe community for our entire campus. The purpose of the clause was to inform applicants that in the event of a federal criminal background check, they may be required to provide fingerprints or a DNA sample to the law enforcement agency conducting the criminal background check. It was never the intent of the university to ask for or to receive fingerprints or a DNA sample."

While Massie said the rule was reasonable, she added that the move to change the language was "to provide greater clarity and avoid continued misinterpretation of the intent of the clause."

Williams, the adjunct who quit, said he was glad he did so, saying that he thinks the resignation "set a tone for the discussion and also helped to cast that discussion in a more urgent light." Williams is a vice president of a new national organization for adjuncts, New Faculty Majority, and he said that rather than seeking another position at Akron, he would prefer to focus on efforts to improve the treatment of adjuncts. (In the interim, Williams is taking on consulting work for his own welfare.)

The irony of quitting his job, Williams said, is that "I have not really lost very much," because he was working at relatively low pay, no health benefits, and no assurance of continued employment. "I was able to take this stance because I, quite literally, had very little to lose," he said. "I refuse to continue to be exploited by the University of Akron. Someday I would like to return to the classroom, but I will not do so until the conditions have improved appreciably for adjunct and contingent faculty."

 

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