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Editor's Note

Penn State Fallout

University Business, September 2012

In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Pennsylvania State University has announced a program of performing background checks on all new hires. It’s just one of a number of penalties imposed on the university since the sex abuse charges came to light.

Let’s take a second to review some of the damage wreaked by that scandal. It led to the conviction of Sandusky on 45 counts of abuse, the firing of legendary football coach Joe Paterno for not acting on information he had, and the dismissal of university president Graham Spanier—to say nothing of the victims of the crime.­

Add that to the punitive measures of $60 million in fines, a four-year postseason ban (including the Big Ten conference championship game), and the vacating of all Penn State victories from 1998 through 2011.

And, last month, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education told the university its accreditation was in jeopardy because of the findings of an independent investigation into the scandal.

Sadly, as was made clear during Sandusky’s trial, this all could have been prevented years ago. Hence, the new background checks.

An article in The Centre Daily Times, Penn State’s “hometown newspaper,” says the background check policy will include reports on criminal history and child abuse. Checks could also include motor vehicle records for those who drive a university vehicle or transport children and credit history for employees who work in jobs with financial authority.

Background checks for new hires are increasingly common in recent years.

According to the policy, the university also has the power to conduct background checks on current employees when it has “reasonable grounds” to do so.
But some employees cast a wary eye on the scope of the new policy. “What really bothered me about those forms is they’re used to cover all bases for all different kinds of checks they perform,” said one man quoted in the story, who is pursuing a doctorate in chemistry and has an assistantship. “The email I got said in no uncertain terms you have to consent to this or you will not receive your pay.”

Background checks for new hires are increasingly common in recent years; checks on existing employees perhaps less so. It is an expensive undertaking, but the cost must be weighed against the negatives. Penn State has every right to try to protect itself against future scandals.

Employees also have a right, however, to be suspect of checks that seem to go beyond the scope of the position for which they are hired, and there may be a few test cases in coming years where the rules are enhanced.

After all, as the saying goes, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

It’s a shame that the athletic department and former top officials didn’t live by that dictum as well.