Pennsylvania College Professors Fight Back against New Background Check Requirement

By Michael Klazema on 8/21/2015
Pennsylvania's 14 state universities are currently in the process of implementing a new policy that would require background checks of all professors, according to a new report from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The new policy was handed down by the State System of Higher Education, which is looking to add criminal checks and child abuse clearances not just for professors, but for all workers at public state universities. Between faculty, student employees, and volunteers, that would mean 43,000 people would be affected by "the initial round of checks," according to a spokesman for the State System for Higher Education.

In essence, the State System's new policy is in line with a broader Child Protective Services Law, which has gone into effect around Pennsylvania this year. The Child Protective Services Law mandates criminal background screenings and child abuse clearances for all employees and volunteers that work with children in the course of their jobs. The law has impacted everyone from public school teachers to youth sports volunteers and beyond. However, unlike most professionals involved in the education sector, college professors are actually exempt from the law, simply because most of them have students who are no longer minors.

Still, the State System of Higher Education have gone ahead and made background checks and child abuse clearances mandatory for professors at their member colleges, and those professors aren't happy with the change. In fact, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, the professors union for public state universities, is taking the case to Commonwealth Court, looking for an injunction to stop the background check requirement in its tracks.

At the moment, it's tough to tell whether the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties is more upset about the background checks themselves or about the fact that the State System of Higher Education implemented the new policy without negotiating with them first. The State System is supposed to run any background check policy proposals by the union before implementing them, so long as those background checks are not directly required by the Child Protective Services Law. The Child Protective Services Law exempts professors from background checks, so long as their only contact with minors is with prospective students on college visits, or enrolled students who just happen to still be under the age of 18.

The State System of Higher Education argues that professors could encounter minors in many other parts of their work as well, from leading on-campus summer camps to teaching courses that include dual-enrolled high school students. The professors union has countered this argument by essentially saying that such instances, while possible, are exceedingly rare and would still only apply to a small handful of professors. It would therefore be a waste of money, the APSCU says, to run these background checks on every single worker at all 14 state universities, especially considering the fact that the system is low on fund anyway.

So who's right and who's wrong? Ultimately, both sides have good arguments, and the point of contention here may be that the checks are being framed completely as a way to protect children from abuse or violation. But just because many college students aren't minors doesn't mean they aren't vulnerable, nor does it mean that professors don't have a position of authority and power that could feasibly be abused if wielded in the wrong hands. In short, while these checks and clearances might align with the Child Protective Services Law, they would ultimately just help to provide a safe place for all students, minor or not, to learn and grow, something that all colleges and universities should be ready and willing to provide.

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