The nation's largest organization of college professors was less than sold on Penn's movement toward stricter hiring practices for faculty, calling the potential changes "an invasion of privacy."
Robert Kaiser, a spokesman for the American Association of University Professors, said Wednesday that mandatory background checks for incoming faculty - a move being considered as Penn re-evaluates its current hiring practices - fall short of being a useful and necessary means of improving campus security and would be "harmful" to potential applicants.
Kaiser said background checks are usually unnecessary, but even when they reveal that an applicant has a criminal history, that record is usually "inaccurate."
"Criminal records are notoriously imprecise . [as to] the context in which something happened," Kaiser said.
For example, he said, a criminal charge might be more understandable if criminal records mentioned that the arrest took place during a Vietnam War protest.
Kaiser noted that background checks could be reasonable under certain extraordinary circumstances, including when a faculty member "has certain kinds of responsibilities that would involve working with classified materials, working with children [or] responsibility for certain financial matters."
That sentiment has long been the official position of the AAUP, which issued a report in 2004 calling for background checks to be limited to instances in which an applicant's criminal background is relevant.
Though most Penn professors chose not to comment on either the AAUP's stance or the Provost office's current discussions about hiring practices, Sociology professor Janice Madden echoed Kaiser's sentiments that a more thorough screening of faculty during hiring is not necessary.
"It's probably for the most part a waste of effort," she said, to include a criminal background check requirement for prospective faculty.
She added that she was very concerned about new policies "putting [up] barriers to re-entering legitimate life for people who have committed a crime."
Kaiser said he hopes that the administration will present its ideas for changes in background-check requirements "with a sensitivity to the complexity of the issues."
If the administration moves too quickly, he said, they may make decisions that are inconsiderate and hurtful toward prospective faculty, disregarding "a need to respect privacy."
Kaiser said he hopes the recent slew of scandals - including criminal proceedings involving professors Rafael Robb and Scott Ward - that has struck Penn "does not lead to a rush to a policy that will do little good for the University."
Provost Ron Daniels previously said he's taking every measure to ensure that this doesn't happen.
"It is precisely because the issue of disclosure of prior criminal offences by prospective faculty members is so important that I sought the advice and counsel of the Faculty Senate before making any recommendations to the President," Daniels wrote in an e-mail.
In the University's current re-evaluation of its hiring practices, background checks for faculty remain an option, but Daniels has said that a more likely step is a self-disclosure question on applications.
Daniels declined to comment further.
Discussion among University officials of changes to hiring and admissions policies for faculty, staff and students comes in the wake of the University's discovery in January that Economics graduate student Kurt Mitman was a convicted sex felon still serving his sentence in a Bucks County prison, from which he commuted back and forth to classes five days a week.
Two other sex offenders were also found to be employed at Penn without the University's knowledge.
Both employees have since left the University, and though Penn officials initially would not comment about the details surrounding their departure, Penn spokeswoman Lori Doyle has since issued a statement that one employee resigned and the other was a temporary employee whose position was discontinued.Comments powered by Disqus
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