October 29, 2009

Many colleges now require criminal background checks of all new employees. But the University of Akron -- in what some experts believe is a first -- is not only requiring a criminal background check, but is stating that new employees must be willing to submit a DNA sample.

The requirement was added quietly and is now receiving attention -- and criticism -- because an adjunct faculty member at Akron quit this week, citing the new rules. "It's not enough that the university doesn't pay us a living wage, or provide us with health insurance, but now they want to sacrifice the sanctity of our bodies. No," said Matt Williams, who had been teaching four courses this semester in the communications and continuing education programs.

Williams is a vice president of the New Faculty Majority, a national organization created this year to advance adjunct interests, and he said that he felt it was time to take a stand and say that there are limits on how much those off the tenure track will take from their employers. While the criminal background checks and potential DNA sample apply to those hired for any position, Williams noted that adjuncts like himself are technically hired and rehired semester by semester, and thus could face this prospect term after term.

The new rules at Akron were adopted by the Board of Trustees in August, but most faculty members only learned of them in a recent e-mail list of announcements sent by the university to all employees. The rules state that background checks will be performed on all candidates selected for employment and that all offers will be "contingent on successful completion" of the check. Further, they state that all applicants "may be asked to submit a DNA sample." The rules specifically state that all employees, including faculty members, are covered.

Laura Martinez Massie, spokeswoman for Akron, said that the university would not comment on the resignation of Williams. She also said that to date, the university has not collected DNA and has no plans to do so, but is "merely reserving the right to do so."

Massie said that Akron wants "a safe environment for all of its students and employees" and that "DNA testing was included in the policy because there have been national discussions that indicate that in the future, reliance on fingerprinting will diminish and DNA for criminal identification will be the more prominent technology." If this happens, she said, Akron wants "the flexibility to adopt the new technology if we found it necessary."

While some colleges have added background checks or tightened screening procedures in the wake of incidents involving their employees, Akron faculty leaders said that they knew of no recent event involving employees that would have suggested a need for such a policy. "Any reasoning behind this is known to administrators only," said Stephen H. Aby, a librarian and professor of bibliography at Akron. Aby is also a past president of the university's chapter of the American Association of University Professors (which represents full-time professors at the university) and has been investigating the issue for the AAUP there.

Many faculty members "have been taken aback by the sweep and invasiveness" of the policy, Aby said. He added that the AAUP was not consulted in advance, and that some believe that imposing the rules now violates the union's contract. He said faculty members want to know why DNA would be collected, what would happen with the samples and how any information would be used -- and that the policy suggests complete discretion on all such matters would go to the administration.

While Aby said that he and his colleagues are bothered by the DNA requirement on principle, he also thinks it is a strategic mistake for the university.

"If a university adopts such an abhorrent policy, if you are competing for top faculty and these faculty members have options, I can't imagine this would be a good draw," he said.

Andy Brantley, president and CEO of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, said he had never heard of a college having a rule that would permit DNA testing of new employees. He said that, if asked about starting such a policy, he would advise a college to check the implications it might have for various federal laws, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act privacy rules.

While Brantley said that while he'd never heard of a DNA rule like the one at Akron, criminal background checks by colleges (without DNA checks) are not rare. "I know that there are lots of faculty that disagree" with such policies, but he said that they are appropriate. "As an employer, the first responsibility of any college is the safety of the community," he said.

The national AAUP's position on criminal background checks is that they should be required only when related to "particular obligations of specific positions." Policies like Akron's (even without the DNA requirement) in which all applicants must undergo checks are criticized as unnecessary invasions of privacy.

Reaction at Akron to the protest resignation of Williams has been mixed. Some comments in The Buchtelite, the student newspaper, were critical. One adjunct wrote that Williams had "screwed over his students," adding: "As an adjunct instructor, I feel his pain. I know what it's like to not have health insurance and to receive lesser pay for equal work. However, what you don't do is shoot yourself in the foot by resigning your position midway through."

Other comments were supportive. "His is an act of courage and principle. As long as we continue to accept without comment or protest the appalling conditions in which we work, conditions will never change. What kind of example do we show our students by refusing to do anything about our unprofessional working conditions?"

Williams said he "absolutely" had concerns about leaving his students in the middle of the semester. But he noted that American higher education appears unconcerned about the fact that adjuncts are part of "the revolving door" at most colleges, there one semester and gone the next. So while he's leaving in the middle of the semester, "it is not me who has created this system."

He also said he was showing students that there are principles worth fighting for, in this case at the expense of his job. (Williams does some freelance Web consulting and will now focus on that to replace his lost income.) "I'm not willing to give up my time and to be treated in this manner," he said. "It is unfortunate that students have become collateral damage."


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