Judge Orders Pennsylvania College System to Suspend Recently Announced Background Check Policy

By Michael Klazema on 9/17/2015
Recently, the Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education announced a plan that would have required professors throughout the state to undergo background checks. The rule change would have applied to all faculty members at public state colleges and universities, and would have gotten the State System of Higher Education one step closer to having a fully vetted employee base.

Now, however, the State System's new background check policy is being put on hold. A Commonwealth Court Judge has issued a preliminary injunction to at least temporarily stall the policy, at the request of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (or APSCUF). APSCUF is the professors' union for Pennsylvania's public institutions of higher education.

While the injunction is in place, Pennsylvania's colleges and universities will not be permitted to run background checks on many of their professors. In the meantime, the state's Labor Relations Board will take a closer look at the policy change handed down by the State System of Higher Education. Their goal? Determining whether the State System had the right to implement the new policy, or if they breached contract by not consulting the union first.

In APSCUF's estimation, the State System of Higher Education overstepped their bounds. Since background checks can affect a professor's career and conditions of employment, the system had a contractual obligation to negotiate with the union about a new background check policy.

Recently, background check reforms have been voted into Pennsylvania state law, with the aim of protecting children and minors. The State System of Higher Education wanted faculty-wide background checks to go along with the new laws. The State System says that college campuses host "hundreds of thousands of minors each year," and, therefore, need thorough faculty background checks to comply with child protection laws. Indeed, young people are commonly found on college campuses, whether as young college students, dual-enrolled high school students, children involved in college-hosted summer camps, or simply as visitors.

The judge who granted the injunction, though, says that the State System of Higher Education needs to be more selective with their background checks. State law requires that professors who have contact with minors must undergo background checks. As a result, the State System must work with their individual institutions (as well as with APSCUF) to determine which faculty members fit that criteria. Any background check policy that goes beyond that criteria is not required by law, and must be negotiated as a contractual issue with APSCUF.

The State System of Higher Education agreed to comply with the judge's ruling. However, comments from the State System's spokesperson made it clear that they are not exactly happy about APSCUF getting in the way of their protective measures.

"It is disappointing that APSCUF sees this as a bargaining issue rather than as an important tool for enhancing the safety and security of everyone who comes onto our campuses, especially the most vulnerable, the State System's spokesman said.

Of course, APSCUF's members have a point when they say that faculty-wide background checks were not addressed in their contracts. However, the vitriolic and defensive response with which APSCUF have attacked the State System's new background check policy does beg a question: does someone in this union have something to hide?

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