Criminal-background and credit checks are becoming a common element of faculty and administrative searches. Many states, and an increasing number of private colleges, are requiring background checks prior to or as part of job offers. My university added them this year, and thus we have been navigating in new waters as we deal with candidates during the offer process.
A certain amount of griping has ensued. One of the clearest vestiges of academe’s history as a “gentleman’s profession” is the idea that we, as academics and holders of advanced degrees, are somehow above suspicion, and thus requiring a background check is insulting and degrades us as professionals. That sentiment is certainly understandable, as the presence of a background check is prima facie evidence that candidates are not being taken at their word.
The paradox, of course, is that only those whose word is not good get caught by a background check. I have been around long enough to know about cases where an impostor has gotten an academic job (easily avoided by the now almost-universal requirement for official transcripts sent directly to the employing institution) or where someone with a criminal record has been hired.
In today’s litigious atmosphere — and, more important, as part of our obligation to students, parents, and other constituencies — transcripts and background checks are a fair way to avoid potential hiring disasters.
However, there is another side of this issue. When an institution has a policy requiring background checks, that policy entails that whoever performs those checks be held to absolute standards of accuracy. A recent case discussed in The Chronicle’s Forums described a candidate’s experiences being offered a position contingent on a background check which later came back with negative information that led to the withdrawal of the offer. The information turned out to be wrong, and it fell to the candidate to correct the record, supplying numerous documents and affidavits certifying the candidate’s innocence. The offer was then reinstated only to be withdrawn again, apparently by the institution’s human-resources office. Why? Because the candidate had protested the negative finding.
If this candidate’s story is true (and it certainly sounds plausible), it indicates the worst possible kind of behavior on the part of the hiring institution. Certainly a university is right to protect itself, and a criminal background check is probably a good part of such self-protection. But colleges and universities also owe candidates the opportunity to clear any negative information that comes to light. They should never be penalized for protesting negative information that turns out to be wrong. Otherwise, such checks are merely the coarse and insulting bureaucratic instruments that a lot of academics suspect them to be.
Editor’s Note: David R. Evans, dean of the college of arts and sciences at Oklahoma City University, has joined the On Hiring blog as a regular contributor. Welcome.