US faculty face more stringent checks in wake of shooting

The killing of three academics at the University of Alabama could lead to controversial criminal background checks of lecturers. Jon Marcus reports

February 20, 2010

As US higher education faces up to the fallout from the recent shooting at the University of Alabama, universities and colleges look set to consider stricter criminal background checks to tighten the vetting of prospective faculty.

The attack last week, which left three academics dead, is alleged to have been carried out by a disgruntled biology lecturer who had been a suspect in a number of previous serious offences.

“I’m sure that, given the horrible situation that has occurred, [heightened background checks] will be a matter of discussion on campuses,” said Ada Meloy, general counsel of the American Council on Education, the nation’s largest association of universities.

However, it has been warned that scholars may object to such checks, fearing that they could reveal arrests for civil disobedience, for example, which could count against them in their careers.

The American Association of University Professors, the largest faculty union in the US, said that, for ordinary faculty appointments, the benefits of background checks “are dwarfed by the grave invasions of privacy caused by such investigations, as well as by their great potential to facilitate the misuse of sensitive information”.

Amy Bishop, a neurobiologist, allegedly killed three of her colleagues at a faculty meeting at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, where she had been denied tenure.

Three other academics were injured in the attack on 12 February, two of them critically.

Dr Bishop had previously been suspected in the fatal shooting of her brother, which was later ruled to be accidental, and of sending a mail bomb to a colleague in Boston.

Ms Meloy said this history raised the likelihood that universities would consider tighter vetting procedures. “I think it’s likely to come up at all levels,” she said.

Background checks on faculty have up until now been fairly relaxed, especially when the candidates have top credentials: Dr Bishop was educated at Harvard University.

“It’s more common to have criminal background checks on [administrative] staff than it is on faculty,” Ms Meloy explained.

She predicted that if checks were imposed, they would prove controversial.

“There are lots of different types of situation that could show up on a criminal background check, and even though the faculty view might be that it shouldn’t include civil disobedience-type situations, once those are exposed it’s hard to completely ignore them and people will have suspicion that that is behind their being denied promotion or tenure or whatever it might be,” Ms Meloy said.

“American universities and colleges have shared governance; policies that are going to affect the faculty have to be carefully looked at by faculty groups as well as by the administration.”

Gregory F. Scholtz, the AAUP’s director of academic freedom, tenure and governance, said that a background check would not have prevented the Alabama shooting, as Dr Bishop had been a suspect in previous offences, but had never been charged.

He added that such checks “can potentially do great damage to someone’s career”.

In one case the union investigated, the criminal record of someone with the same name as a professor cost the innocent academic not only the job she was applying for, but also the one she was in, he said.

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