The University of Illinois Board of Trustees on Thursday approved a revised policy requiring background checks for all new faculty members, academic professionals and Civil Service employees.
Changes address concerns raised by faculty senates after trustees adopted the new policy in September to help create a safer environment for students, employees and visitors. Senates on each campus asked the board to revisit the policy, citing concerns over issues such as privacy and whether they are unfair to candidates with criminal backgrounds who have paid their debt to society, which faculty members said could have a disproportionate impact on racial minorities.
The revised policy fulfills the university’s obligation to safeguard its campuses while also ensuring opportunities for prospective employees with criminal histories, said Trustee Patrick Fitzgerald, chairman of the board’s Governance, Personnel and Ethics Committee, which reviewed the changes earlier this month.
“This policy was born out of our responsibility to protect our students and our taxpayers, not out of any effort to chill the employment prospects of people with felony records who are moving on with their lives,” said Fitzgerald, a former federal prosecutor. “I’m a big believer in second chances and think we owe it to society to help reintegrate people who have earned the right to put the problems of their past behind them.”
A review of the revised policy by employment law firm Jackson Lewis of Chicago concluded that it complies with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines and with federal and state nondiscrimination laws.
When concerns surfaced, President Tim Killeen appointed an ad hoc working group of faculty and administrators representing all three campuses that met regularly through the fall semester to review the policy, consulting extensively with governance bodies such as faculty senates, their committees and the Urbana-Champaign chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
The working group developed revisions that sharpen the policy’s focus on safety, clear up ambiguities, and distinguish between criminal background checks and other pre-employment background checks. The revisions also address confidentiality and note that the policy will be aligned with the university’s mission and vision, and will be guided by principles supporting workforce diversity and international reputation.
The revised policy also calls for an annual review that will assess costs, changes in the volume and diversity of applicants, job offers withdrawn due to background checks and the number of serious safety issues involving employees to gauge the impact of the policy.
“This revised policy is significantly improved,” said Christophe Pierre, vice president for academic affairs and chair of the working group. “It addresses the concerns and suggestions that were expressed by a number of faculty, and I believe it will contribute to the safety of our students and employees. I wish to thank all my working group colleagues for their tremendous dedication and efforts, and for making this process a successful case study in shared governance.”
The University Senates Conference, a group comprising faculty leaders from all three campuses that advises the president and trustees, also praised the collaborative effort that developed the revised policy.
“This process resulted in an improved policy, and in our view it is an exemplar of how shared governance should work,” USC Chair Nicholas C. Burbules wrote in a letter to Killeen.
Trustees originally approved the policy in September, expanding criminal background checks to the hiring of all new employees. Previously, those checks had only been required in security-sensitive positions or for positions that fall under the university’s existing protection of minors policy. The background check policy is complemented by implementation guidelines and procedures developed by each campus and University Administration, which conform to the parameters established in the policy.
Under the policy and its implementation guidelines, there is no list of crimes that automatically disqualifies someone from employment. If checks yield a criminal conviction, it is weighed against a variety of factors, including how long ago it occurred, the person’s age at the time, their employment history, rehabilitation efforts since the offense, the nature of the crime and whether the conviction relates to the job in question.
Criminal background checks will examine national, state and local criminal records and the National Sex Offender Registry, and will verify Social Security numbers. Certain jobs may require other pre-employment background checks, such as educational and employment history, which have already been in place at the university.
Each campus will utilize processes to protect the privacy of candidates’ background information and to clarify who may be consulted when evaluating information.
Checks are only done after job offers are made and accepted contingent upon successful completion of the background check, and appointments will not be sent to the board of trustees for approval until checks are completed. In extraordinary circumstances, employees could begin work pending a background check, under the condition that the offer could be rescinded if the check nets concerns.
Faculty senates in Chicago and Springfield have endorsed the revised policy. The Urbana-Champaign Senate approved a resolution rejecting the policy, citing continued concerns over potential negative impacts.
University officials spent nearly two years developing the new policy, which applies to all new faculty members, academic professionals and civil service employees. The policy does not cover undergraduate and graduate student workers, volunteers, contractors or people appointed to nonpaying positions, unless they are assigned a security-sensitive position or fall under the existing protection of minors policy.