Revised UM policy will require criminal background checks of new hires

Thursday, September 27, 2007 | 7:18 p.m. CDT; updated 4:37 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Anyone who wants to work for the University of Missouri System will be subject to a criminal background check by a private contractor once a revised personnel policy takes effect on Oct. 1.

Newly hired, rehired or promoted employees and department transfers will be subject to the background checks. The new policy will apply to applicants for faculty and staff full-time, part-time and temporary positions. The policy will not apply to student workers.

System staff have been subject to criminal background checks since 1997. The new policy will ensure that all system employees, faculty and staff are treated the same, said Karen Touzeau, assistant vice chancellor of Human Resource Services.

The background checks will be performed by Kansas City-based Validity Screening Solutions, a private firm that has more than 1,500 clients nationwide. The company will take over work previously handled by the Missouri Highway Patrol. The information compiled by Validity will be national in scope and more comprehensive than the previous background check policy, Touzeau said.

The new policy concerns some members of MU’s Faculty Council, said council chairman Frank Schmidt. Prospective faculty already undergo routine background checks before being hired, Schmidt said. But until the new policy, those checks did not include criminal records.

Criminal background checks are “notoriously inaccurate,” Schmidt said. Someone with a common name, such as John Smith, is “going to show up on all kinds of stuff,” he said.

Employees and job candidates will be notified of the results of the background check and given an opportunity to investigate any information he or she feels to be incorrect. MU Provost Brian Foster’s office will conduct additional research before deciding whether to hire the candidate for a faculty position, Touzeau said. Human Resource Services will do the same for staff positions.

Schmidt said criminal background checks could also interfere with academic freedom and civil rights. He said some Faculty Council members have questioned, for example, if a college prank that occurred when the prospective employee was 18 could preclude him or her from being hired by the system.

Schmidt said the relevance of the offense is something the administration should study before hiring a candidate.

“There may be some cases where it is appropriate (to disqualify someone from a position) — for example, someone who has a string of convictions for careless and imprudent driving not being allowed to take students on a university-sponsored trip,” Schmidt said. “If it’s not relevant, if it simply turns out to be some kind of a hunt, then we’re obviously concerned.”

Touzeau said that the university will certainly look at the relevance of the information uncovered by the background check. “Having something in your criminal record is not necessarily a bad thing,” she said. “If you’re a receptionist, we won’t be as interested in whether you have a good driving record.”

The cost of implementing the new policy is not yet known, Touzeau said. The system will cover the cost for the first year. Each of the four UM campuses will pick up its individual cost during the second year, she said.

A growing number of both public and private universities are starting to require background checks for faculty and staff hires. In October 2006, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that 74 percent of academic institutions conducted background checks on prospective staff employees, while only 26 percent checked criminal records of prospective faculty.

The University of Wisconsin system, the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and all public universities in Kentucky are among the institutions that have begun requiring criminal background checks of all new employees within the last two years.

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