A few years ago, an attorney from the University of California, Davis campus came to Binnie Singh with a question. A college at UC-Davis, where Singh is assistant vice president, had selected a new recruit. But some in college had heard rumors about the candidate’s past conduct. What could they do?
Singh and attorney, Sheila O’Rourke, wanted to avoid perpetuating a common problem in college recruiting:pass the stalker.” This occurs when a professor or administrator who has been credibly accused of sexual misconduct on campus leaves for another institution. The first campus — which may fear a libel suit or have signed a settlement agreement with the employee — remains silent on the charges, allowing the professor or administrator to continue harassing people at the new institution.
To avoid this series of events, Singh and O’Rourke asked the candidate to sign a release allowing them to question the person’s previous institution about the rumors. The candidate accepted and the previous institution confirmed that there was no documented history of disciplinary misconduct.
“We thought, why don’t we do this as a regular thing?” Singh said in an interview Thursday. She spoke about it with other administrators in the University of California system and, eventually, with the UC-Davis faculty senate. Although there was skepticism, Singh said, faculty leaders did not raise major objections. A pilot program has therefore begun.
That was in 2018. Today, UC-Davis officials say the policy — one of the first in higher education to tackle the “pass the stalker” — has been a success. The university has not faced major legal issues due to the policy change, and officials believe it discourages stalkers from applying.
Not automatically disqualified
The university has released a report this week on how the policy had worked so far and recommended that other colleges adopt something similar. The report is part of a years-long effort by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to develop better procedures for preventing and responding to sexual harassment. Along with UC-Davis, the University of Wisconsin system has also published a report on its work stop “passing the stalker”.
The UC-Davis policy works like this: Candidates applying for faculty positions with job security, such as tenure, sign a waiver stating that UC-Davis officials may contact their previous colleges for a reference checks. Once a candidate is selected for a position and approved by a dean, the university’s Office of Academic Affairs queries the candidate’s previous institutions on “substantiated findings of ongoing and completed investigations regarding misconduct and discipline associated”. If these questions lead to findings of misconduct, the candidate is permitted to provide additional information. A panel of senior UC-Davis administrators will then meet to determine whether the information should disqualify the applicant.
Once a candidate has gone through this process, they are asked to sign another document stating that they are not currently under active investigation.
The policy is designed to uncover other types of misconduct in addition to sexual harassment, such as discrimination. But a finding of misconduct does not automatically mean that the candidate is rejected. The UC-Davis panel examines the seriousness of the misconduct, how long ago it occurred, how many times it occurred and whether the candidate took personal responsibility, according to the report.
Of the more than 50 reference checks conducted by the university, none revealed “documented documented misconduct” at the applicant’s other institutions. University administrators suspect that requiring applicants to sign a waiver allowing UC-Davis to ask about past misconduct has discouraged some potential applicants from applying.
It is important to note that none of the faculty members who joined UC-Davis after going through this process have been accused of misconduct since their hire.
“Lack of controversy”
The University of Wisconsin’s new system policy also directs administrators who conduct reference checks to question previous employers about sexual misconduct. This policy allows system campuses to decide who will conduct reference checks and at what point in the process they will do so.
The Wisconsin policy also tells system members what to do when someone from another institution calls to verify the credentials of a University of Wisconsin employee. The Wisconsin official directs the caller to an office where he can request information about applicants’ disciplinary history, while emphasizing that this is part of institutional policy and should not imply that the applicant has engaged in harassment.
“What’s remarkable about this,” said Quinn Williams, the system’s general counsel, “is the lack of controversy.”
The system decided to create the policy in 2018, after report of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel showed that employees accused of sexual misconduct on Wisconsin campuses were able to leave quietly after being investigated and then rehired at other colleges. In one case, a Title IX coordinator was accused of sexual misconduct and later worked at two other institutions.
The University of Wisconsin system did not yet know how many reference checks had revealed past misconduct so far, Quinn said. But as with UC-Davis, he suspected the new policy discouraged people with a history of disciplinary violations from applying.
The biggest challenge has been pushing for transparency and information sharing on a topic — sexual harassment — that is legally burdensome, according to the Wisconsin system’s report. But the university “determined that greater legal liability would be incurred by do not work to prevent the passage of harassers between institutions than by failing to do so due to concerns about allegations of defamation, retaliation or discrimination by harassers.
Neither UC-Davis nor the University of Wisconsin thought their new policies had significantly slowed the recruiting process. When asked about past misconduct, UC-Davis officials said it could take a long time to connect with the right people at other institutions. Singh said a colleague suggested creating a shared document listing these people on each University of California campus and how to contact them.
“We just keep tweaking things,” she said.
Many other universities have asked how to create similar policies, Williams said. He thinks it’s a sign that the culture is changing – towards one where more institutions feel comfortable sharing information that can prevent harassers from moving on quietly to other victims.