After professors misbehave, Penn considers background checks

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

In light of recent scandals involving University of Pennsylvania faculty and staff, the school is considering introducing a stricter screening process for its potential hires. The ongoing review of hiring practices is garnering mixed reactions from Penn faculty and students and national interest groups.

In the past two months, Penn has discovered that two of its staff – one an administrator, the other a temporary employee – are convicted sex offenders on the Megan’s Law list. One employee resigned and the other’s temporary employment ended as planned.

These two are the latest of at least seven incidents involving Penn employees with criminal backgrounds over the last two decades. Four professors have been connected to sex crimes since 1993, according to a Feb. 21 Philadelphia Inquirer article. In the past year, economics professor Rafael Robb, who is currently on academic leave, was charged with murdering his wife in December, and L. Scott Ward, a professor at Penn’s Wharton School, pled guilty Feb. 20 to producing child pornography.

In addition to scandals involving faculty and staff, Penn economics graduate student Kurt Mitman was recently discovered to be a convicted child molester residing at the Bucks County, Pa., prison and commuting to the campus as part of an academic-release program without the university’s knowledge, the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn’s student newspaper, reported March 2. Mitman has since lost his academic-release privilege.

Penn currently screens staff but not faculty for criminal backgrounds, but it has created three committees to consider implementing a more stringent hiring process for both employees and students, Penn spokeswoman Lori Doyle told the Inquirer.

As of now, no Ivy League university runs criminal background checks on its potential faculty, according to the Inquirer.

Penn Provost Ron Daniels is reviewing hiring practices and should issue recommendations in the next few months, Doyle told The Herald.

Doyle declined to comment further.

Though background checks of prospective faculty are still being considered, an opportunity for self-disclosure in the hiring process is more probable, Daniels told the Daily Pennsylvanian.

Increased screening of potential Penn employees and students could mean a decrease in their privacy. Privacy concerns have caused disagreement on campus and among interested parties.

“We see no justification for subjecting each and every new faculty member to background checks,” said Jonathan Knight, director of the program in academic freedom and tenure for the American Association of University Professors, the nation’s largest faculty interest group. The AAUP issued a 2004 report calling for the use of background checks only when an applicant’s criminal background is relevant.

“These background checks should be in proportion or relative to the kind of actual positions the faculty are being recruited for,” Knight said.

Tanvi Goel, a Penn freshman, said she thinks a stricter screening process is a good idea. But, she said, “background checks and things like that have their limitations” and “you have to draw the line somewhere.”

Knight said guaranteeing that new hires have clean backgrounds can be challenging. “I don’t know that you can ensure that any employee doesn’t have a criminal background,” he said. “It becomes very difficult, especially if the worker is of the mind to keep the information from the employer.”

“I think the issue is not so much how do you ensure that you unearth every piece of information in a person’s background, but what reasonable efforts can you make that will assure you that the person you are interviewing is no more or no less than what their resume describes them as?” Knight said.

Five members of Penn faculty senate committees interested in the issue declined to comment or did not return calls and e-mails from The Herald. Representatives from Brown’s Office of the Dean of the Faculty declined to comment on University hiring practices or Penn’s review.