Background checks rile professors

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.

According to press reports at the time, Krueger killed three men on impulse at the age of 17. He received a life sentence. In prison, however, he was a model inmate, earning a degree in psychology and helping in drug and alcohol prevention programs. Because of his good behavior, Krueger was set free in 1979.

When the murder came to light last summer, some of his Penn State colleagues told reporters that he had been an exemplary professor.

The fact that Krueger's past never came to light in previous checks indicates that even when checks are run, a wide margin of error remains.

"One of the problems with criminal-record information is the accuracy of the information," says Peter LeVine, of Peter LeVine Associates, Inc., which evaluates prospective employees. "There is no standard."

Search methods can be superficial or sophisticated, and can yield all manner of personal data from local, state, or federal records.

But job candidates are likely to have lived, worked, or driven through any number of jurisdictions in their travels. Social Security numbers have been entered incorrectly; felonies have been recorded as misdemeanors; records have been sealed and expunged, sometimes rightly, sometimes in error. And while the existence of fingerprints may indicate an arrest, they may also indicate military service or past work as a bank teller. As to who is qualified to assess such background material - and to decide what role it plays in hiring - is anyone's guess.

Errors can happen, says Willie Freeman, security chief of the 43,000-student Newark, N.J., public school system. Calling the private screening companies "a dollar a doughnut," he believes that systems like Newark's - which pays the state of New Jersey $78 for electronic fingerprints to be checked against local, state, and FBI records - work well. "I don't know who would object to it," he says flatly.

Academics say their status as campus elites does not shield them from the indignities visited on the masses.

"We object to the fact that just because it's done elsewhere for all members of a certain profession, it should be done for other professions as well," says Mr. Knight. The American Association of University Professors does not object to application form self-disclosure questions which ask about criminal conviction, he says.

For all the fuss, no one pretends that the $39 Penn State and other schools now spend to check each new hire will reliably weed out the Paul Kruegers. Advocates and opponents alike agree that if nothing else, the trend reflects universities' efforts to protect themselves.

"If something did happen on campus, the potential negligence lawsuits could be avoided," says Representative Baker. Even with nothing more than the addition of a self-disclosure question on the application, he says, "at least there's been an effort ... at least they've done their due diligence."

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