University of Maryland Moves Toward a Broader Background Check Policy

By Michael Klazema on 3/12/2020

For college administrators nationwide, protecting and enhancing on-campus safety are two of the most pressing tasks. With significant incidents within the past decade still looming, including the Larry Nassar and Jerry Sandusky abuse scandals, university systems are grappling with questions about how to best protect their students. In Maryland, the state's flagship university has put background checks for staff at the top of its to-do list.

In a bill currently under consideration by the University of Maryland's Senate, background checks similar to the US OneSEARCH offered by would become a hiring requirement. The rules would apply to support roles such as administrative assistants and teaching roles, from adjuncts to associate professors. 

Currently, the university's policy does not go beyond the state mandate for vetting specific job duties, such as background checks for professionals working with children. Of the 12 schools under the University System of Maryland's umbrella, ten already require background checks for some or all faculty and staff positions on campus. 

Sponsors of the bill say that it is one piece of a larger strategy to create a safer environment for students. Some faculty members have expressed doubts about the efficacy of such a policy, wondering whether it could inject bias into UMD's hiring process.

Across academia, background checks have found popularity as a first line of defense for protecting students from harm. However, though they may be a valuable aid in identifying individuals who could pose a risk, they cannot predict future behavior. Ongoing criminal monitoring identifies problems that occur after hiring. Still, this useful tool is not a substitute for clearly-defined policies for addressing misconduct and an organizational culture that encourages following procedure.

The alternative has played out across many campuses with universities facing the consequences of issues from oversights to organized cover-ups. At the University of Michigan, faculty members reportedly raised concerns about the hiring of a high-profile individual who later faced accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct. The Omaha World-Herald also reported on two known instances of abuse at UM that went unpunished by administrators. 

When policies break down at the upper levels of an organization, the potential for harm increases dramatically. While academia background checks are tools to promote safety on the ground floor, well-developed policies and better enforcement enhance their effectiveness. Screening an employee's suitability shouldn't end on his or her first day of work.

Should UMD adopt the new rules, the school will face a challenge that many other organizations struggle with today: how to keep time-to-hire reasonable without compromising on vetting requirements. The proper tools from, from criminal history reports to reference checks, can help reduce delays. 

By providing hiring managers with the appropriate information, organizations including many of America's universities hope to create a safer space for their staff and students.

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