Backlash for Background Checks at the University of Illinois

By Michael Klazema on 12/24/2015

There is a growing controversy behind a new employee background check policy at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. According to a report from The News-Gazette, a central Illinois-based newspaper based in the Urbana-Champaign area, the Urbana campus Senate announced their displeasure with the new background check policy in the form of a no-confidence vote. Through the vote, which went 55-35, the campus Senate approved a resolution that has labeled the University of Illinois background check policy as "inequitable." Specifically, the Senate believes that the policy would have a disproportionately negative impact on minorities.

The issue of disproportionate or disparate impact is a commonly discussed one when it comes to criminal background check policies. Since minority groups typically have higher incarceration rates than whites, criminal background check policies can sometimes have disproportionately negative impacts on those groups, compared to how they impact Caucasians. The EEOC even has a policy on disparate impact, stating that "it is not illegal for an employer to ask questions about an applicant's or employee's background, or to require a background check." However, "the employer cannot conduct background checks or use the information obtained in a manner that denies equal employment opportunity to anyone on a protected basis, by intent or by unlawful disparate impact."

In the fall, when the University of Illinois Board of Trustees announced plans to run background checks on all prospective professors (as well as some other parts of faculty and staff), their policy sounded like it would do a good job of avoiding disparate impact. Specifically, the university made it clear that the simple presence of a criminal conviction on a person's record would not bar that applicant from hiring consideration. Instead, the school planned to consider each applicant on a case-by-case basis, only disqualifying applicants due to criminal history when their convictions specifically raised doubts about their ability to perform a job. The goal was to make campuses safer—not to be inequitable.

Members of the campus Senate at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus say that the Board of Trustees never consulted them before passing the policy in the fall. That fact could have something to do with the group's opposition to the background check policy, which is certainly pronounced. Indeed, according to the News-Gazette article about the campus Senate's recent vote of no confidence, the group has written off the Board of Trustees' background check efforts as a PR move and has even dismissed the claims that faculty background checks could help make University of Illinois campuses safer.

As the News-Gazette article noted, faculty background checks are becoming increasingly common at top universities throughout the nation. The University of Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Purdue, and Ohio State are all examples of schools that require the types of checks that UI faculty are rejecting. Faculty members at the school have raised several arguments about the new background check policy, from the disparate impact issue to the fact that some of the highest profiles instances of faculty abuse at other universities (such as Jerry Sandusky, at Penn State) were perpetrated by people who didn't have criminal records anyway.

Still, universities owe it to their students and to the families of those students to provide as safe an educational environment as possible. Employers from virtually every sector run background checks on their hires, in part as a means of protecting their customers. It's only fitting for the University of Illinois to do the same for their (very high-paying) customers.


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