Potential employees at the College of William and Mary will soon fall under stricter scrutiny.
A policy change requiring all employees, including faculty, to undergo criminal background checks is expected to go into effect in the next academic year. The College will be one of few Virginia universities with a faculty background check policy on such a large scale.
“Our main obligation is the security of all members of the College community,” Provost Michael Halleran said. “We are concerned with due diligence and general safety of the College community.”
Under the current policy, teaching faculty are excluded from faculty background checks. Most Virginia universities-including the University of Virginia, whose teaching faculty are given the option to fill out a background check form— follow this procedure.
Virginia law only requires the College to background check some employees; background checks are run on other applicants depending on their job duties.
“There is a fair amount of latitude within Virginia law,” Halleran said. “Required background checks are common in many walks of life.”
Halleran, Internal Auditor of the ad hoc committee Michael Stump and Chief of Police Don Challis all cited a recent societal trend toward greater college security as the main motivation behind the policy change. Recent cases of violence were also cited as triggers for the policy change.
“Well, there was the instance in Alabama, and [former assistant economics professor Justin] May last spring,” Faculty Assembly President William Hausman said.
May pled guilty to child pornography charges in October 2010 and was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison on February 3. Three faculty members were killed when a professor opened fire on the University of Alabama began shooting on campus February 9. Stump also mentioned the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre as justification for the new policy.
“A lot has happened on college campuses in the last four to five years,” Stump said. “People are more nervous, and society expects these kinds of regulations to be put in place now.”
While Halleran, Challis, Stump and Hausman agreed faculty background checks on May would not have shed light on his violations, all generally supported the change.
“I think this is a prudent policy,” Halleran said. “This doesn’t require a change in the faculty handbook.”
Challis agreed with all recommendations made by the committee, stressing his belief that the policy was standard and should be changed to place priorities on the College’s reputation and safety. Hausman described the policy as a necessary change.
“My general sense is that people are supportive of this,” Stump said. “While we don’t have a specific deadline, we do want this thing done soon.”
Following the policy changes have been described as a balancing act.
“We do not want to turn away any potential employees, but we do want to protect the College community,” Halleran said.
For this reason, hiring decision will deend on whether an applicant’s crime was “presumptively disqualifying” or “potentially disqualifying,” and will require further explanation by the applicant, including the date, circumstances, severity, instance of self-disclosure and potential for a repeat offense of the crime.
“No one past conviction will completely decide a hiring decision,” Halleran said.
The committee recommendation report called for the installation of a background officer whose responsibilities would include conducting an initial interview, running a basic background check, obtaining additional explanatory information, consulting with the hiring unit on the a hiring decision, and independently deciding under undefined special circumstances whether an applicant should no longer be considered.
“The ‘background officer’ is a deliberately ambiguous term,” Halleran said. “The officer will not fully decide the hiring or non-hiring of an applicant. I am most likely going to be the background officer.”
Past convictions for any felony, violent crime, distribution of drugs, supplying of alcohol to persons under 21, domestic violence, or dismissal from a previous job for student or fellow employee mistreatment were classified as “presumptively disqualifying.”
Misdemeanor convictions regarding sexual offenses, drug possession offenses, or two or more substance abuse offenses were “potentially disqualifying.” Failure to disclose was also included in this category.
In terms of the budget, Halleran estimated the cost for each faculty background check to be about $30.
“The budget cost will be relatively modest,” Halleran said. “This policy change will most likely piggyback off of existing resources.”
The policy also provided for a combination of in-house and external investigation. Most of the background check will be completed using local databases, which differs from the U.Va. policy, in which checks are run through the Virginia State Police. Fingerprints, however, taken just before a hiree assumes his or her duties will be run through databases.
The policy change was spurred on by the Board of Visitors request to see a report on implementing background checks on all employees in April. An ad hoc committee, formed by Halleran, submitted its recommendations to the Provost, who then presented the report to the faculty assembly for comments March 22.
“The policy will have to undergo some changes before I fully support it,” Hausman said. “Some language was unclear.”
Objections were made to who exactly will make the hiring decision, as well as to the list of previous crimes deemed worthy of rejection of employment.
“This is the blueprint of a law,” Halleran said. “Some details still need to be worked out.”
The policy will also have to be reviewed by a personnel policy committee and the Board of Visitors before further implementation.