UI planning for background checks for all new employees
An instructor with a violent criminal past wouldn't automatically undergo a background check if hired by the University of Illinois today, but that will change in 2015.
The UI is developing a new policy requiring background checks for all new hires, not just those who work with children or hold "security sensitive" positions, as under current rules.
The hope is to implement the policy between January and March of next year, said Maureen Parks, associate vice president for human resources, who briefed a UI Board of Trustees committee on Thursday.
The news comes as the Urbana campus debates the case of James Kilgore, a former member of the Symbionese Liberation Army who has held a variety of jobs at the UI in recent years, including grant-writer and arts instructor.
But Parks said the UI has been moving in this direction since the Penn State child sex-abuse scandal, in which former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of molesting young boys on campus over a 15-year period.
"We were already undertaking this," she said.
The UI created a new policy in 2012 requiring all employees who have contact with minors to undergo background checks. Other positions requiring a check are those who work with cash or have access to university funds; hospital workers and those involved in patient care; and police officers or others who work with firearms.
The UI's job applications also now ask applicants about any criminal convictions.
Parks said most other Big Ten schools have updated their policies in the last year. Some schools require checks for new staff members, some for all employees. Penn State now requires them for anyone age 18 and older who works in association with the university in any way, including consultants and adjunct faculty, Parks said.
"Ten to 15 years ago, there really was not too much activity in this area in higher education," Parks said.
Parks said the UI has been focused over the past year on implementation of the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act, which was amended in 2012 to require that all university employees report situations in which they suspect child abuse or neglect. So far, 55,000 employees have been trained about the law's requirements, or about 96 percent of the total, she said.
Currently, the UI's three campuses have similar policies on criminal background checks but procedures for implementing those policies vary, including what happens if a crime turns up in an employee's past, she said. At Urbana, for example, a committee of officials from campus police, human resources and the UI legal office reviews whether the conviction is related to the responsibilities of the job in question. A person convicted of embezzling money, for example, would not be hired for a position that handles cash, Parks said.
Parks has appointed a working group to recommend a university-wide policy and consistent set of procedures. It includes representatives from all three campuses, university administration, the UI Hospital and UI legal counsel's office.
The panel will also examine what similar universities are doing, costs associated with background checks, the capacity of the university's current vendor to handle the increased number of checks, and what procedures will be followed when a "positive hit" is obtained.
Parks hopes to have a draft policy prepared by September, which will be reviewed by top administrators and faculty groups and then presented to trustees next November.
The UI contracts with General Information Services of Chapin, S.C., to conduct background checks, but Parks did not have data Thursday on how many are performed each year.
"The most common conviction we see is DUI," Parks said. "People will disclose speeding tickets."
Trustee Patrick Fitzgerald, a former federal prosecutor, said he would oppose any policy that bans hiring anyone with a conviction in their past, because the UI would be "condemning an awful lot of people."
But he added, "I am a fan of asking. I do think we want to err on the side of knowing. I'd hate to find out someone had a violent background" after the employee was hired.
Trustee Karen Hasara also said an employee who is promoted or moves into a job with different responsibilities should undergo a background check.
"That's how we sometimes get ourselves in trouble," she said.
Kilgore did not undergo a criminal background check when he was hired because it was not a security-sensitive position, Parks said, but campus officials were aware of his background. Under the new policy, he would automatically have a background check, she said.
Kilgore had been preparing to teach courses in Global Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2014-15 when he was reportedly told earlier this month that his contract would not be renewed. In an interview with The Associated Press, Kilgore blamed outside political interference sparked by News-Gazette columnist Jim Dey's recent articles about his past.
The columns detailed Kilgore's association with the radical group SLA in the 1970s, including a 1975 bank robbery during which a bank customer was killed. (Kilgore was one of the armed robbers, but did not shoot the victim). After the robbery, Kilgore fled to Africa, where he remained until his extradition to the U.S. in 2002.
He served six years in a California prison before joining his wife, UI history Prof. Teresa Barnes, in Champaign, where he has been active in social-justice groups.
Provost Ilesanmi Adesida said Monday no final decisions on Kilgore's future have been made. He plans to form a committee to review the case as well as general policies about how the campus hires visiting, nontenured academics like Kilgore.
A bill introduced in February, the "Best Candidate for the Job Act," would prohibit employers from disqualifying an applicant for a job simply because of a criminal conviction. The employer would have to assess whether the crime was related to the job in question, Parks said.
The UI's procedures already comply with the proposed law, she said. The bill would not prohibit background checks.
It's currently in the House Rules committee, but "for all intents and purposes right now it's not moving," said Katie Ross, senior director of human resources administration.
Other Big Ten schools have revised their policies on criminal background checks. Here is what some now require:
— Indiana University: Background checks for all new staff and temporary employees and verification required for select existing staff.
— University of Iowa: Background checks for all regular merit, professional and scientific, and faculty positions.
— University of Michigan: Criminal history records obtained for faculty, postdoctoral research fellows, regular and temporary staff, and graduate assistants.
— Penn State: Background checks for any individuals, age 18 and over (paid or unpaid) who are engaged by Penn State in any work capacity, including employees, volunteers working with minors, adjunct faculty, consultants and contractors, visiting scholars and graduate assistants.
Source: University of Illinois