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UM professors might need background checks


Columbia, MO – Newly hired professors at any of the University of Missouri's four campuses might soon need to have a criminal background check before being hired, just like janitors, cafeteria workers and others.

University officials say they're developing the policy not because of any specific case, but instead a recognition that faculty members should be treated the same as other university employees.

The University of Missouri currently relies on the state Highway Patrol to screen the criminal backgrounds of prospective non-academic employees at its four campuses.

"Most of our vetting of faculty has to do with their academic qualifications," said Frank Schmidt, a biochemistry professor helping to develop the new standards. "We're just starting the conversation about what (a new policy) would cover."

Schmidt acknowledged that the mere discussion of such a policy is likely to raise hackles about threats to academic freedom as well as personal privacy.

In 2004, the American Association of University Professors released a statement opposed to broad background checks, citing the "moral cost of adopting a general policy... in order to identify the rare special case."

Schmidt and a group of 11 other professors from the Columbia, Rolla, St. Louis and Kansas City campuses will consider those issues while trying to craft a proposal for the Missouri system, he said.

"There's a very strong academic freedom and free speech issue here," Schmidt said. "We want to avoid any kind of political interference. But at the same time, we have a duty to protect our students."

For example, a professor with previous convictions for sexual misconduct might not be an appropriate hire, Schmidt said. Nor would an instructor with numerous driving violations necessarily be the best candidate to drive an intramural sports team's van as its faculty adviser.

The issue has come to the forefront more dramatically on other U.S. campuses.

At Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, a public relations professor who abruptly retired the day campus police searched his computers for evidence of child pornography is now a fugitive after fleeing his summer home in North Carolina.

Shippensburg, where Gibbs taught for 16 years, does not screen its faculty hires' criminal backgrounds. Thus, it had no way of knowing Gibbs spent six months in jail after pleading guilty in an indecent assault case involving a 13-year-old boy.

Penn State University implemented background checks for new faculty in January 2004 after discovering that a respected professor was on parole for a 1965 triple murder in Texas.

The Penn State policy limited the inquiry to instances of felony convictions, sex offenses, misappropriation of money and verification of highest degree earned. An Indiana University-Bloomington proposal last year sought similar limits for academic employees who handle university money or work with "vulnerable populations."


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