Criminal Background Checks in U.S. Higher Education: A Review of Policy Developments, Process Implementations, and Postresults Evaluation Procedures

Article excerpt


Over the past several months, there have been a series of high-profile incidents on college campuses involving faculty, staff, and students reigniting the debate surrounding the need for more effective risk management practices on college campuses. In October 2008, a former University of Washington custodian set himself on fire in front of a large group of horrified staff, faculty, and students (Seattle Times, 2008) He had apparently been placed on administrative leave for threatening behavior directed toward his colleagues. Also, in November 2008, a University of Iowa Professor was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning shortly after being accused of improper sexual contact with several students over a period of years (Zilbermints, 2008). In December 2008, a West Virginia Medical School doctor was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into allegations that he molested four children in Guatemala on a recent trip (Maunz, 2009). Finally, in Nebraska, a Wayne State College student was charged with three counts of sexual assault on a fellow student and faced trial beginning in May 2009 (Murray, 2009). State lawmakers across the country have reacted to these types of events with legislation requiring criminal background checks (CBCs) on groups ranging from incoming students to new faculty and staff employees. Unfortunately, the boundaries defining what constitutes an effective CBC process has not been standardized, so many universities create policies driven by politics and budgetary considerations rather than with a focus on appropriately mitigating risk. Even when motivated to craft robust background check policies, administrators often find themselves crafting policies without a foundation of knowledge about what others have done in this area. This research is intended to contribute to a better understanding of these issues for institutions that are in various stages of adopting these practices in their university environments.

Background Checks

The recent emergence of the use of criminal background screening as a risk management tool coincides with a growing prison population. According to Guerino, Harrison, & Sabol (2012), as of December 31, 2010, there were an estimated 1.6 million adults in U.S. prisons, a 14% increase in prison populations since 2001. Couple this knowledge with estimates provided by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) that found in 2005, 80% of employers surveyed now conduct CBCs, up from 51% in 1996 (Gardner, 2008). Despite this explosion of anecdotal evidence, there is little quantifiable information available on the utilization and effectiveness of this process as a way to reduce personnel risk. Connerly, Arvey, and Bernardy (2001) evaluated local governments' use of CBCs as a way to reduce risk posed to local government entities in their interactions between government personnel and the public they are hired to serve. In their analysis, 100% (62) municipal agencies that responded indicated that they do CBCs on at least some of their prospective employees, while 50% (31) reported doing CBCs on all of their prospective employees. Interestingly 63% (39) of the respondents indicated that they do not conduct CBCs on current employees even if they move to a new position. Their findings suggest that while the use of CBCs is commonplace in municipal settings, even these public agencies are not doing all they can do to reduce the risk posed by the inadvertent hiring of criminal offenders. Hughes and White (2006) evaluated the utilization of background checks in higher education and found that among 109 administrators responding to the survey, 82% (90) conducted CBCs on their employees and yet 18% (19) did not. Staff positions are checked most frequently with 74% (67) indicating that they do CBCs on staff. By comparison, only 26% (23) conducted the CBCs of faculty. The results of this study suggest that higher educational environments underutilize CBCs as an effective risk management tool compared with their corporate counterparts. …