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Background Checks

Background Checks

I know I opined on this recently but thought an update would be in order, and I welcome further reactions. It’s not necessarily a huge issue, but a tough one.

We are under increasing pressure to administer background checks to all newly-hired faculty (currently we only do selected, as in fields involving younger children or major lab safety issues). There’s a sense, after the recent abuse scandals, that “all the universities” are doing it and we should surely get on board.  (My father used to ask me, parent-fashion, if I would jump off a cliff just because all my friends were doing it. I’m now tempted to reply retrospectively, ‘Yes, Dad, if we were all in higher ed.'”)

In point of fact, we recently surveyed our list of peer institutions and found that only nine of 24 respondents do across-the-board checks, so the peer pressure point may still be off the mark. The actual new pressure comes from the fact that Virginia Tech is about to join the ranks (citing, understandably, what’s happened there in recent years as a particular prod), leaving Mason and UVA the only major publics in the state not on the list.

And despite hesitations others and I have, we will probably decide to do it. The real issue, of course, is how the policy is framed so that new applicants are not turned off and, above all, how it’s administered — what happens if some long-ago offense is uncovered. And here I hope we can be very sensible both in state policy and so that we don’t suffer from joining the herd.

Yet I do hesitate, personally. It does strike me as intrusive and potentially open to abuse in a field that prides itself on freedom. What if past political arrests figure in? To what extent do we wish to imply some past offense can’t have been paid for and a new chance offered? Again, I think we can administer a system in such a way that these problems don’t factor in, but they’re possible, and faculty applicants might understandably hesitate to get involved.

And what’s the gain, outside of clearly sensitive areas where we’re already applying checks? Maybe once in a great while some past miscreant will be uncovered who should be kept away, but it’s going to be rare. The real gain, I fear, is just to be able to say we’re doing it, protecting our rears in case of some future issue. Again I expect to be outvoted on this one, but I personally don’t find this motive particularly compelling against an admittedly vague, but not imaginary, constraint on academic freedom.