UI Faculty Background Checks and Civil Liberties Post-9/11

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Required background checks for jobs may be widespread, and spreading wider after 9/11, in the private sector and also in the public sector. But that is not, ipso facto, cause for them to be expanded at UI.

The UI Board of Trustees (BOT) has mandated, and the administration is busily implementing, an expanded criminal background checks policy that dates back more than a year and a half.

The timing tells you everything you need to know.

Because at UI the issue is more about politics than any demonstrable concern for public safety.

On February 9, 2014 News-Gazette columnist Jim Dey wrote a lengthy editorial attacking James Kilgore, UIUC academic professional and convicted ex-Symbionese Liberation Army member. Then-BOT president Chris Kennedy responded a day later (personal emails, Kilgore, pp. 4-5),

“[I]f someone breaks the law and serves his sentence, he should be able to move forward with his life. Our country should be a land with second chances and redemption. Having said this, I am still uncomfortable with the notion that, that second chance should come from public support… It’s not as though we have a monopoly on higher ed; there are plenty of other institutions in our state.”

This is key, and I will return to it below.

After Kilgore came Salaita. On July 24, 2014, then-Provost Ilesanmi Adesida wrote to Professors Nick Burbules and Joyce Tolliver “we have run into a buzz saw again!” referring to Steven Salaita’s anti-Israel tweets during the 2014 Gaza war (personal emails, Salaita, p. 19).

“One thing that we would like to to [sic] do is to figure out how we prevent this sort of highly charged and negative blow back like we have had on Kilgore and now Salaita in the future.”

“I know that we are trying to develop something for background check for criminal issues but this now borders of [sic] free speech/hateful speech domain. What is acceptable and what are not acceptable, that is the question.”

“This is potentially a slippery territory!”

There is already a UI background check policy in place for academic employees working in “security sensitive” positions defined as

“1. the care of or daily close contact with pre-college aged children or resident students at Beckwith Living Center;
2. large amounts of cash or other items of significant value;
3. firearms;
4. controlled substances and direct patient medical care.”

The current policy also ensures the “protection of minors,” defined as pre-college age.

Most people are okay with background checks for such positions. (The overwhelming majority of us are not willing to engage the issue of so-called “sexual deviancy.”)

But spurred on by the Kilgore and Salaita controversies, the office of “academic human resources,” a moniker George Orwell would appreciate, and other administration minions busily set about vastly expanding the scope of background checks in a classic case of bureaucracy breeding bureaucracy.

They would not agree, but the problem boiled down to: how do we avoid trampling on job applicants’ civil rights but at the same time screen out the Kilgores and Salaitas? After all, UI cannot simply argue, as Kennedy did, for a Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) approach. Even BOT trustee, and Republican former federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald has consistently maintained that not everyone with a criminal record should automatically be excluded from employment – there are just too many of them. Here Fitzgerald acknowledges the reality of mass incarceration in today’s US, even as he opens up the can of worms. How do you decide a “good” conviction from a “bad” one?

How do you screen out not everyone with a record, but just the Kilgores and Salaitas?

UI’s answer comes in the form of an expanded background check policy approved by the BOT September 10, and slated to be implemented Oct. 5

The new policy requires checks of all new hires, including all faculty hires. There are two grounds for nixing a job offer.

“The University may revoke any conditional offer of employment to an individual… whose criminal record or history creates an unacceptable level of risk to (1) maintaining a safe and secure University environment, or (2) the University’s reputation, property or resources.”

Regarding the first reason, nowhere does the university give any rationale, or example, for why the current policy should be expanded to all employees, including faculty.
The second reason is, however, the key: “reputation.” How is “reputation” defined? Who decides how much potential for “reputational” damage is too much to be hired?

What possible reason is there for adding “reputation” as a reason for revoking a faculty job offer? I think Kennedy and Adesida have answered that question above.

As critics argued September 21 at the Academic Senate meeting during discussion of the issue, the proposed UI policy is “inescapably subjective.”

“A person who has committed a felony and has served his or her time in prison has by definition been judged by the entire width and breadth of the U.S. justice system to be rehabilitated and that person is ready to rejoin society. The review committee will in effect be retrying and resentencing a person for an offense, which is unfair.”

But wait, there is more, much more.

Whether a prospective hire with an offer in hand raises a red flag would be decided by a Conviction Review Committee made up of Academic Human Resources staff, UI police, UI legal counsel, and, oh, two faculty members. With a faculty minority of two, this explicitly takes the hiring of faculty out of the hands of faculty. And it runs expressly counter to former provost Adesida’s own Hiring Policies and Procedures Review Committee that, in a report approved by the Senate, specifically stated that

for faculty searches, no non-faculty body should be inserted into the hiring chain.

It turns out that, no surprise, an entire “industry” has grown up in the “wild west” of background checks in our insecure post-9/11 world. And they do, at best, a questionable job. UI has already contracted with GIS, but GIS has already been the subject of several class-action lawsuits from job candidates. In 2014 it settled with more than 53,000 people in a class action suit for $3.2 million on allegations that it misrepresented information and violated the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (Prof. Terri Barnes, comments to Senate, September 21, 2015).

All these points came out in Senate discussion September 21 of a resolution to delay implementation of the new policy, a resolution co-authored by four faculty and presented by history professor Terri Barnes. The day before, the local News-Gazette, that embodiment of those state values that Kennedy says UI should reflect (Kilgore, pp. 4-5), had already rushed to the judgment that “[T]he objections raised by the faculty dissenters are not persuasive. They are both trivial and transparently self-serving.”

“Frankly, they’re hardly worth the senate’s time and, most certainly, not worth its support.”

However, the Senate, in this instance, did not heed Mr. Dey’s beck and call, and instead voted overwhelmingly, 100-18, to ask the BOT to “urgently and immediately” postpone implementation of the new policy until “problems and inconsistencies can be discussed, addressed and resolved with input from the senate.”

After discussions with the BOT, UI has put off implementation of the revised background checks policy until November 1. This will allow four weeks for the administration to consult with faculty in the UIUC Academic Senate Executive Committee. Opponents had argued for a delay during the current academic year. Administration to Senate: heads I win, tails you lose.

Coupled with their do-nothing approach on Salaita and the American Association of University Professor’s censure of UI, the new administration of President Thomas Killeen and interim Chancellor Barb Wilson seems determined to continue the policies of former Chancellor Phyllis Wise and former Provost Ilansami Adesida.

Because no compelling reason, except political, has yet been given for an expanded background checks policy, the Scottish verdict “not proven” must be rendered.

What if, instead, UI simply welcomed the robust discussion of diverse viewpoints? Oops, education might then ensue.


David Prochaska formerly taught colonialism and visual culture in the UI History Department

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