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Background Checks

Background Checks

Discussion of further moves toward background checks for faculty and others is once again on active agenda at various institutions including George Mason. Any campus crisis now escalates attention, and there’s no easy way to avoid response.

A few years ago when the discussion last actively surfaced, we generated a compromise approach with background checks for certain faculty categories most obviously involved in sensitive work: with children, with dangerous materials, and so on. But we stepped back from systematic checks because of academic convention violations and, frankly, concern that the more sweeping approach could offend some potential and desirable faculty recruits. This concern, by the way, has not abated.

But we know that a batch of institutions do have systematic checks, and their number seems to be increasing. One clearly prudent move, which we’re undertaking, is to find out more fully what the current common practice is among the sort of institutions which we deem ourselves.

I’m sure it’s true that a number of outside observers are impatient with the notion that academics don’t simply knuckle under. We do have our conventions, and whatever the outside view, it’s not sensible to trample them heedlessly without considering not only tradition but institutional cost. By the same token, however, we have a public responsibility periodically to revisit issues of this sort.

A key issue, of course — and we’re also checking on institutional practice here — is not the background check itself, but what is done with the result. The biggest substantive concern in this whole area is the risk that we close off, or are pressed to close off, second chances for people who did commit some indiscretion in the past but paid the penalty and subsequently shaped up. We actually have a very good, if informal, policy in this regard concerning student applicants, and we clearly need to think about similar management if we decide we must alter our current approach to faculty. Obviously, the whole policy area is both interesting and important, and we’ll try to be sensible in our current consideration.