Fairly recently, I was approached by a graduate professional program to teach a short, for-credit, winter-term course on copyright. I was really excited by the opportunity – I mostly lead one-shot sessions, and I was looking forward to getting into more depth with a group of students. I’d started planning my syllabus, finding (open access, of course!) readings and videos I wanted to use, contemplating assignments and assessment. I think they even got as far as generating me a staff ID card.
But I don’t have that staff ID card today, and I didn’t teach that course. I don’t know if anyone did. Late in the hiring process, the folks in the graduate program admin office remembered a new policy, and told me about it. I didn’t like it. The institution’s administration (not the administration of the professional program in question) would not consider changing their policy, and were quite surprised that I would think there was anything wrong with this policy! Then they were really shocked (and the grad program administrators truly left hanging, for which I’m very sorry) when I said I’d have to turn down the job.
I actually think it’s quite likely that many of you’d agree with them that there’s nothing wrong with their policy. They just wanted me to undergo a criminal background check.
But the fact that maybe a lot of you think this was a reasonable request is why I’m writing this.
Background Checks Are Sometimes Necessary
I can get behind background checks for people who handle money for an
organization, or do executive-level decision-making. Those people have
the power, as employees, to significantly affect the institution’s
interests. For any position that requires specific qualifications and an
employment history, both the qualifications and the employment history
should be rigorously checked. Even in these situations, hiring the best candidate for a position requires nuanced review of the information
that results from a vetting process.
also support background checks for people who work with children, teens,
and vulnerable adults. There are inherent power imbalances in those
situations, which can lead to exploitation of vulnerable individuals. I
actually think criminal background checks are insufficient to guarantee
the safety of vulnerable individuals, and a lot of extra checks and
protections need to be built in to the functioning of groups that serve
Yes, sometimes a criminal history is a good reason to disqualify
people from a particular job – but an overall acceptance that it is always reasonable to disqualify anyone with any kind of criminal record from any job is a pretty big problem. It is harmful to the individuals who have been convicted; they deserve to have a chance to move on with their lives. But it’s also harmful to us as a society: social isolation and unemployment of ex-offenders contribute to recidivism (though other factors are also involved) – and to extended harmful effects for ex-offenders’ families and children.
And the proliferation of background checks for jobs in which employees have
little to no power over vulnerable populations, and for jobs in which
employees have little to no power to directly affect an organization’s
interests – that’s what I find really problematic.
Background Checks Are Not Really About Student Safety
Even (and perhaps in some instances, more so) in graduate school, it’s true that instructors do have power over students, and where there are power imbalances, there is a potential for abuse. However, in a graduate program where all my students would also be independent adults, the kind of potential safety risks that a criminal background check would supposedly reveal (violent or abusive tendencies, history of manipulative fraud, etc.) are also risks that my students would pose to me, and to each other.
I am not suggesting students should have to submit to background checks before enrolling in a graduate program. At all.
I am suggesting that in many situations where it may be reasonable to -want- to know about someone’s past, it is not reasonable to actually -get to access- that information. It’s reasonable for my next door neighbors to -want- to know whether I have a criminal history, but it’s not reasonable for them to get to run a background check on me before I move in.
Quite cynically, “student safety”, for all some administrators may believe that’s what they’re doing, is pretty much a red herring. Universities want to run background checks on instructors because it’s semi-affordable (I bet some of them even offload the cost to applicants), it’s decent insulation in some kinds of lawsuits, and because it probably lowers their insurance rates.
If they really wanted to ensure safety, and really thought background checks improved safety for reasonably equal adults in the same room together, they’d run checks on all their students. But that would cost a lot of money – and might deter enrollment.
Background Checks Are Coercive
Most adjunct instructors do not have the luxury of turning down a job opportunity when the hiring institution asks them to do something invasive. Most adjunct instructors are barely scraping by. While not going into details, the amount I was offered to teach this for-credit class for a month was less than I often am paid for a half-day speaking gig. And I do not make amazing money speaking.
But most importantly…
Background Checks Are Inherently Unjust
I have absolutely zero criminal record; there’s no way this could’ve affected my getting hired. But one reason I have absolutely zero criminal record is because I’m a white woman from an educated and economically privileged background. I got suspended from school once – and there was never any question that my playground misdeeds (we stole ketchup and mustard from the school cafeteria and used it to paint snowbanks in the parking lot) would result in an arrest. Although the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” problem has been growing most rapidly in recent years, there is no question that in this country the people most likely to have been convicted of a crime are also very likely to be poor, to be members of racial minorities, or to otherwise be members of socially marginalized groups.
If you believe that the U.S. criminal justice system isn’t heavily biased towards arresting, convicting, and giving longer sentences to people who are members of groups that have less power in the world, I have no idea what to say to you. (Other people do, though. Lots of other people.)
But if you admit that there is bias in the criminal justice system, then you have to admit that criminal background checks – whose result is, presumably, to disqualify individuals with convictions in their past – are likely to increase disparities that are already highly problematic in many workplaces, and especially in higher education. Background checks will not reveal violent, abusive, or manipulative pasts of people who were never arrested, or never convicted, for those activities. But otherwise qualified instructors (i.e., those with the requisite qualifications -and- good accounts from former employers) who engaged in far less dangerous or threatening activities, but were members of groups against which the criminal justice system is biased, may never get a foot in the door. Who is more likely to have a conviction on his record: the white man who repeatedly got in drunken public altercations during college, or the black man who got in a public fight once?
Not a Big Deal… For Me
I was able to turn down this job because I already have a full-time
that pays me well, and because I have outside income from speaking. And,
quite honestly, although I am proud of my work, my professional status
is itself due, in many ways, to the various unearned advantages that
have contributed to my relatively smooth ride through life.
I don’t know if I’d take this hard-line a stance if the job was one I really wanted or needed. I don’t look down on others who choose to comply with such a request. Being -able- to turn down a job is an incredible luxury. But because I do have that luxury – that privilege – I thought this was a time when I could use that privilege to highlight, however ineffectively, something I believe to be an injustice.
(ETA: many thanks to the friends who read this post over ahead of time and offered really helpful feedback. Even more so to my friend Amity Foster, who has done the most to bring the issue of fair hiring practices into my awareness.)