GW to require background checks for faculty candidates

Media Credit: Samuel Klein | Senior Photo Editor
At the Faculty Senate meeting Friday, the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Dianne Martin announced the University would require background checks for all top faculty candidates. The University will focus the checks on sexual offenses and criminal charges.

GW will perform background checks on top faculty candidates next year to screen for sexual offenses and major criminal charges.

The proposal for increased oversight came from a faculty-led task force’s study released last fall. Officials gave nearly three dozen recommendations for adding protections for minors and increasing transparency, modeled on the report of the sex abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University.

Vice President of Human Resources Sabrina Ellis said criminal or sexual offenses would be the focus of the checks, but her team is still mulling some specifics, like requiring checks on part-time faculty who may not work for consecutive semesters. She said the extra research will tack on about five days to the hiring process.

“We are specifically concerned about anything that will raise a safety or security risk with our students, many of whom are minors. That is the overall focus and intent in what we’re doing in pursuing a background check expansion,” Ellis said at the meeting.

Officials presented the changes at Friday’s Faculty Senate meeting, where several members voiced concerns about the level of scrutiny and whether past arrests for activities that academics are known to take part in, such as political protests, would impact an applicant’s chances.

Provost Steven Lerman said that since arriving at GW in July 2010, he has fired faculty members after learning about their past sex offenses.

“Had we done the check, most people would have agreed we never should have hired that individual,” Lerman said at the meeting.

He also emphasized that after talking to provosts from 14 other universities, he has seen a “significant” shift in the number of universities requiring background checks for employees.

“We first had this conversation four years ago, and none of us were doing this,” he said. “Now, Penn State is very large in everyone’s thinking.”

University President Steven Knapp created a task force almost two years ago to review the Freeh report, which outlined Penn State’s failure to prevent former football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky from sexually abusing minors.

Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Dianne Martin, who presented the plan at the meeting, said top applicants will also screened for valid social security numbers. Officials will continue to check each applicant’s employment history and credentials.

“We looked at the implications of the report, and one finding was that not only our staff but all new employees and faculty should go through a background check,” Martin said at the meeting.

The University already conducts about 1,000 background checks each year for staff hires, so “minimal costs” will come from the added checks, Martin said.

GW’s human resources department will also check current faculty stepping into department chair roles and any other administrators who will take on financial responsibility within the University.

While the human resources department will run the screenings, Ellis said the provost’s office will still make the final call on a candidate’s eligibility.

The Faculty Senate’s executive committee will monitor the process over the next year to see how it is implemented. Martin said that checks will not be required for next year’s new faculty members who have already been hired.

Charles Garris, an engineering professor and the chair of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee, said the new procedure would ensure the chances of a faculty member sexually abusing a student would be “one-in-a-million.”

“Part of the idea is that our students come to GW trusting that the faculty are honorable and conscientious people,” he said.

He estimated that the background checks would cost about $150 per applicant.

Scheherazade Rehman, former chair of the executive committee, said a committee would form to consider how background checks would affect faculty and offer feedback to the University.

Many of GW’s peer schools already require background checks for their faculty. A human resources consultant at Northwestern University, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak with the media, said she was “surprised” GW does not already require the checks.

“It’s not a difficult process and I think it’s important, especially when people come into contact with students,” she said.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.