Verification and Trust: Background Investigations Preceding Faculty Appointment

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

Verification and Trust: Background Investigations Preceding Faculty Appointment


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


The following report was initially published for comment in the March-April 2004 issue of Academe. This revised text was approved for publication by the Association's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure in June 2004.

Many employers in the United States have been initiating or expanding policies requiring background checks of prospective employees. The 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, bank-account histories, pharmacy records, and even records of medical visits. The ready availability of these data creates the serious possibility of promiscuous, unfair, and perhaps even abusive investigations, and yet access to these data is subject to few legal limits.1 Systematic inquiry into such personal information is nevertheless commonly understood to constitute a serious and harmful intrusion upon an individual's privacy.

Higher education has not been immune to the siren call for background information. Legislation mandating background checks for all employees of certain public institutions (which may include all or some public institutions of higher education) has been adopted in at least one state. The purchasing consortium of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (made up of the Big Ten universities and the University of Chicago) now makes available at a discount the services of a background-checking company; it is for each participating institution to decide whether and how these services will be used. Some colleges and universities have initiated or expanded background investigations of candidates for faculty 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 within higher education was especially stimulated by the extraordinary discovery in 2003 that a respected member of the faculty at Pennsylvania State University had for decades been on parole for murders he committed in another state when he was a teenager. The misrepresentation of faculty credentials or experience is not totally foreign to higher education.- Dut J such sensational incidents are fortunately few, and almost all I can be avoided if faculty search committees exercise reason- ' able care.

Because colleges and universities 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/ 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.

Scope of Investigation

Because colleges and universities must repose a high degree of trust in their faculties, they are justified in attempting to ascertain whether candidates are worthy of that trust. …

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