Verification and Trust: Background Investigations Preceding Faculty Appointment

By Finkin, Matthew W.; Post, Robert C. et al. | Academe, March/April 2004 | Go to article overview

Verification and Trust: Background Investigations Preceding Faculty Appointment


Finkin, Matthew W., Post, Robert C., Thomson, Judith J., Academe


The statement that follows, prepared by a subcommittee of the Association's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, was approved by Committee A for publication. It will be on the agenda of the committee's June 2004 meeting for further discussion. Comments are welcome and should be addressed to the Association's Washington office.

Many employers in the United States have responded to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, by initiating or expanding policies requiring background checks of prospective employees. Their ability to perform such checks has been abetted by the growth of computerized databases and of commercial enterprises that facilitate access to personal information. Employers now have ready access to public information that had heretofore been difficult to collect without an expenditure of considerable effort and money-criminal records, litigation history, worker compensation claims, marriage records, bankruptcy liens, court judgments, and more. They also have ready access to private information-credit-card history, airline use, certain telephone records and bank-account histories, pharmacy records, and even records of medical visits. Inquiry into either type of information by a third party is commonly understood to be an intrusion upon an individual's privacy and we take it to be such. There are few legal limits on access to these data (outside of criminal records), and it appears that the potential for promiscuous-or voyeuristic-investigation is limited only by an employer's concern for expense and ethics.1

Higher education has not been immune to this siren call for background information. Legislation mandating background checks for all employees of certain public institutions (which may include all or some of public higher education) has been adopted in at least one state. The purchasing consortium of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (a consortium made up of the University of Chicago and the Big Ten universities) now makes available at a discount the services of a background checking company; it is for each participating institution to decide whether and how those services will be used. Some universities and colleges have initiated or expanded background investigations of candidates for professorial appointments. This interest in background checks has arisen despite the absence of any systematic study of the need for the information such checks might produce. The interest has been stimulated by the extraordinary recent discovery that a respected member of the faculty at Pennsylvania State University had for decades been on parole for murders committed in another state when he was a teenager. Moreover, the misrepresentation of faculty credentials or experience is not totally foreign to higher education.^ But such sensational incidents are fortunately few, and they have little to do with the national security concerns that have emerged since September 11, 2001.3

Because universities and colleges are now considering extensive and intrusive background checks with an urgency that seems quite out of proportion to the actual problems facing the academy, the AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure appointed the undersigned subcommittee to consider the question of the standards that should guide academic institutions in the implementation of background checks.

Fortunately, we need not write on a clean slate. Almost three decades ago, the Privacy Protection Study Commission, created by the federal Privacy Act of 1974, addressed the tension between individual privacy and institutional needs for information in the context of employment.4 It focused on two central issues of relevance here: the scope of background investigations and the procedures employed when such investigations are conducted. It concluded, rightly in our estimation, that the former must be guided by a norm of proportionality and the latter by concerns for both accuracy and fairness. We believe these governing principles to be applicable to higher education, and we address them below. …

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