U to require faculty background checks

By Michael McFall, Staff Writer

Is your professor an ax murderer?

The answer could dictate whether or not educators are allowed to teach at the U. The U will begin criminal background checks in May for any potential faculty and staff members applying for work, but some existing faculty and staff are against it.

Is it fair?

Jessica Miller said she was shocked to find out that the U does not perform criminal background checks on most of its employees.

“I would hope the school draws the line before I would have to,” said Miller, a junior in international studies. She said if one of her professors was a convicted sex offender or a burglar, she would drop the class and retake it under someone without a 7-Eleven holdup in his or her past.

The new policy is designed to hire the best employees and protect students from people with dangerous histories, said Susan Olson, associate vice president for faculty.

“The point is to hire good employees when they start,” Olson said. Current staff and faculty won’t be checked unless there’s probable cause, she said, and what dictates probable cause is decided on a case-by-case basis. The same applies for new applicants.

The policy began when Utah House Bill 196 was passed in 2007. The bill states that all universities must start criminal background checks by May 1. The bill was passed unanimously in the Utah State Legislature, and a poll conducted by the Deseret News last year found that 88 percent of Utahns were in favor of the bill.

But not everyone is on board. Some U professors think criminal histories should have nothing to do with a faculty member’s opportunities and abilities to teach effectively.

“If someone has served their time, they should be able to move on and get on with their life,” said Angela Smith, an English professor.

Policy dictating what past crimes are serious enough to prevent employment is still a topic of debate in the academic community, Olson said. The final policies for the background checks will be nailed down in March or April.

In 2003, the Pennsylvania State University administration discovered one of its professors was convicted in a triple homicide more than 40 years ago, when he was 17 years old. This discovery prompted Utah Rep. Ronda Menlove (R-Garland) to sponsor House Bill 196 in 2007.

However, not everyone may be subject to the background checks. The U may exempt adjunct professors and other part-time employees from the background checks. However, adjuncts and part-time employees could be considered bigger security risks since they tend to spend more of their time with younger students than full-time faculty, whose time is usually divided equally between all ages, Smith said.

Criminality is still criminality, whether an employee works full time or as an adjunct, said Julia Corbett, a professor in the communication department. The U’s defense for only checking full-time and tenure applicants is that the cost and labor of checking everyone would be too great in light of the recent statewide budget cut.

“It gives us pause to check everyone,” Olson said. “We’re on hard times as it is.”

Is it affordable?

Utah House Bill 196 requires that institutions pay for the cost of the criminal background. This comes as a concern for the U after it received the $10.2 million budget cut, delivered earlier this fall by the Legislature.

“I think if any money is going to be spent on this, I’d rather see it be put to balancing our deficit,” said Beth Krensky, an art teaching professor. It seems that the Legislature has its priorities backwards if it’s asking the U to spend more money after taking it away, she said.

The background checks will cost the Utah System of Higher Education approximately $728,000 for the first year and $58,700 annually thereafter, according to the bill’s fiscal note. The estimate assumes that universities will shoulder the cost of checking current employees, while the expenditure is passed on to new applicants. According to the bill, the Board of Regents may decide that $52 can be forwarded to the applicant as a condition of employment in order to offset the costs.

Olson and Human Resources Recruitment Coordinator Greg Hughes said that the U will not pass the cost on to any applicants. Every institution in the state will be conducting the checks, and with recruitment competitive enough as it is, the school can’t afford to discourage any applicants with an added price tag, Olson said.

For the U, each background check could cost between $20 and $44, which might fluctuate on a case-by-case basis, Hughes said. The service provider, Accurate Backgrounds, was chosen as the company to make a contract with. A total cost is impossible to pin down since it’s still undecided how many applicants would be checked, she said.

The Legislature is overreacting to the Penn State incident, an outrageously rare occurrence, when the cost of the checks could be put to something else, Corbett said.

How long ago a teacher committed a crime is just as important as its severity, said Spencer Peters, an undeclared sophomore who said he has a criminal record of his own. He was arrested on alcohol-related charges two years ago in his home state of Illinois, and doesn’t think the foolish mistakes that every person makes in his or her past should hinder his or her future opportunities.

However, some crimes are still too heinous, such as a murder conviction, Peters said. Even if the costs of the background checks raise student fees or tuition in light of the budget cut, the safety from the rare heinous felon is worth it, he said.

Is it realistic?

Background checks are already routine for some parts of campus. The U’s health science, public safety and child care departments already do criminal background checks on their applicants upon hiring and on an annual basis.

Even though health science employees are rarely around young students, the U Hospital and Medical School’s full-time faculty and staff are checked in case they have a history of theft or drug abuse, because of their proximity to so much temptation, said Richard Sperry, the U’s associate vice president of health sciences.

Although some professors are concerned that background checks could hurt the U’s ability to recruit a steady flow of new employees, pre-existing examples suggest otherwise. When the health science department started conducting applicant background checks in 2001, it faced the same concern.

“There was considerable apprehension when we initially began doing the background checks,” Sperry said. Faculty members were worried that the checks would discourage employee recruitment or that their public criminal records would be broadcast to their coworkers.

Neither fear ever materialized, Sperry said. Recruitment is the same as ever, criminal histories are kept in private personnel files and other clinics and health centers have adopted similar policies in light of the U’s success, he said.

Like the U’s impending policy, the health science department does not check its adjunct staff since they number in the thousands, he said. Come spring when the U’s official policies on background checks are decided, the health science division’s policy might serve as a model.

However, Sperry admits that students or parents may demand full disclosure of a professor’s criminal history in May, and there are past crimes that could hurt an employee’s academic reputation.

Even if a professor isn’t fired for a past crime, an empty classroom isn’t too different, Olson said.

Criminal records are public, so any of the information uncovered by the background checks would already be available to students. The applicants would also be made aware of the background check and what it would disclose before it happens, Hughes said.

Once the check is completed, administrators would have access to the information. But a concern raised in the Legislature when the bill was up for debate is whether students, parents or fellow coworkers should be aware of the criminal history as well.

The results will only be accessible to recruitment personnel who specifically make the hiring decisions, Hughes said. The Fair Credit Reporting Act protects an employee’s personnel files, including the background check. If students or parents want to find out about a faculty or staff member’s criminal history, they would have to do their own digging, he said.

Capt. Lynn Mitchell of U Police Department did not comment on the fairness of the checks, since they’re an age-old staple for his line of work.

Mitchell said that as a young man he was sure that upstanding citizens of the law could keep clean noses to their graves. However, in this day and age, he said that everyone has some kind of criminal history, whether it’s been written yet or not.

“You’d be lucky to make it to 70 with only one felony,” he said. “I mean, who hasn’t committed one?”

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