Editorial: It’s about time for faculty background checks

Mar. 28, 2013 @ 08:11 PM

The real question we might want to ask ourselves is: “What took so long?”

Finally, Duke University may soon require criminal background checks for new faculty.

The Herald-Sun’s Neil Offen reported on Wednesday that the university’s administration wants to bring faculty under the same checks that have been applied to all other new hires since the 1980s.

The change seems to make sense to Susan Lozier, chair of Duke’s Academic Council.

“I doubt any of us can articulate a reason why, on principle, we should be exempt,” she told the council.

It sounds like a fundamental truth, the kind of thing that shouldn’t even be up for debate, that your would-be tenured professor deserves as thorough a criminal background check as the person who paints the walls on campus.

But it wasn’t so long ago that university administrators around the country held faculty above everyone else, an elite class that didn’t need their honor sullied by a little character research.

David Evans, an Oklahoma City University dean writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2008, noted:

“One of the clearest vestiges of academe’s history as a ‘gentleman’s profession’ is the idea that we, as academics and holders of advanced degrees, are somehow above suspicion, and thus requiring a background check is insulting and degrades us as professionals.”

Although the practice is increasingly commonplace throughout the United States, it still met resistance as recently as November 2012 at Florida Gulf Coast University, Cinderella of this year’s NCCA men’s tournament ball.

“Does this policy make us safe or does it just throw money [away] wastefully to make us think we’re more safe?” asked FGCU’s Win Everham, a professor of environmental studies, in an article published in the university’s Eagle News.

That same article quoted another professor who wanted students fingerprinted instead, which misses the point.

Meanwhile, back in Durham, everyone seems, if not thrilled, at least resigned to the idea that the university should avoid hiring people with DWI convictions to drive its buses or convicted drug offenders to oversee chemistry labs in our own local version of “Breaking Bad.”

It’s not like Duke has a history of criminal masterminds (that we know of) teaching classes.

Peter Lange, Duke’s provost, didn’t expect the proposed checks to generate many concerns with prospective faculty hires.

“The number of cases we’re going to encounter over a five-year period is probably close to zero,” he said.

Duke’s vice president for administration, Kyle Cavanaugh, agreed the number would be small. “But in today’s environment, how can we not do this?”

We share that sentiment and hope the council moves forward with a recommendation to implement the checks.