Background Checks Rile Professors

By Mary Beth McCauley Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 5, 2004 | Go to article overview

Background Checks Rile Professors


Mary Beth McCauley Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


As incoming college freshmen fret about roommates and rosters this month, incoming faculty may be glancing back warily at their own college days, hoping that certain youthful indiscretions - or worse - will remain forgotten.

Criminal background checks, standard practice for new hires in much of the working world, have invaded the upper echelons of higher education. Now the professors, once vouched for by clubby collegial networks, increasingly undergo scrutiny all too familiar outside academia. They are not happy.

Cheap technology is pushing aside good judgment, says Jonathan Knight of the American Association of University Professors.

While conceding that security investigations make sense for some academics - those who work with children or with biological agents, for instance - he believes the suspicion that everyone may have something to hide dampens morale without predicting future crime. "Why the professor of medieval poetry should go through this is hard to understand," he says.

As in the outside world, fears of terrorism and workplace violence, along with widespread misrepresentation of credentials, fuel the rush to investigate. Some favor taking any step that might make life safer for a student. Others believe the breakdown of trust inherent in the background-check mentality poses a far more serious threat.

Much of the furor is fueled by the discovery last summer that college professor Paul Krueger spent four years teaching at Penn State University before the school learned that he had murdered three fishermen 40 years earlier.

The sensational case prompted universities nationwide to look hard at their hiring practices, and led a Pennsylvania legislator to introduce a bill requiring criminal background checks for professors hired by universities and colleges in the state. "If a triple murderer is in the classroom, it makes you wonder who else is in the classroom," said Rep. Matt Baker, who introduced the bill.

Student-on-student crime actually accounts for the bulk of campus crime, with most of the rest attributed to out-siders, says Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security on Campus, a watchdog and victim advocacy organization. But, he argues, "given the level of trust and access they have, it would be prudent" to investigate faculty.

Focusing on faculty, however, might give a false sense of security, and divert attention and resources from the more real threat posed by other students, counters Pennsylvania lawmaker Greg Vitali. He believes Baker's bill is driven by sensationalism and will harm recruiting efforts, and favors leaving the decision up to individual colleges.

"In judiciary hearings, no one could cite a single instance of a college professor who had a criminal record ever doing harm to a student," says Mr. Vitali.

The checks themselves are of questionable merit. One criminology study showed that a private firm, given a list of 120 people known to be on parole or probation, found criminal records for only 56 of them. Doing slightly better, the FBI found records for 87.

Krueger himself reportedly was given two background checks when applying for previous employment, neither of which unearthed his criminal record. …

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