Ending “Pass the Harasser” in Higher Education

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Scholars call for rules to require screening of faculty hires for previous sexual misconduct.

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Nenad M. Kostic, a chemistry professor, reportedly “engaged in serious and repeated misconduct” while teaching at Iowa State University. Despite his misconduct, Texas A&M University at Commerce hired Kostic as the chair of its chemistry department, where he again allegedly committed sexual misconduct.

Although Texas A&M had the means to screen Kostic for prior misconduct during his hiring process, it did not. Accrediting bodies, however, could address similar failures faced in screening processes by uniformly requiring universities to screen faculty candidates for sexual misconduct before hiring them. In a recent article, law professors Susan Fortney and Theresa Morris argue that accreditors should.

With up to 58 percent of university employees and up to 41.8 percent of students reporting that they have experienced sexual harassment related behaviors, Fortney and Morris contend that increased regulation on screening processes used in faculty hiring could prevent institutions from hiring serial harassers.

Although information on faculty misconduct is typically available to the public, screening for such misconduct is not typical during university faculty hiring. As a result, “pass-the-harasser” occurs often, which is when professors seamlessly transition to a new institution without their past sexual misconduct following them into their roles, explain Fortney and Morris.

Current hiring processes allow professors to receive little to no scrutiny for their prior misconduct, and in many situations, new employers are completely unaware of professors’ history of harassment until they are accused of sexual misconduct again at their current institution. For this reason, some universities, such as those within the University of Wisconsin system, are committing to hiring processes that check for prior sexual misconduct. But not all do.

University hiring protocols must be supplemented with regulation by accreditation agencies, Fortney and Morris argue. These private standardized bodies, which are free to set their own requirements for maintaining accreditation, could require screening for prior misconduct.

Sexual harassment can negatively impact students and faculty alike, shaping both of their perceptions of the institution’s norms and values, Fortney and Morris claim. The problem is only further amplified, Fortney and Morris suggest, when faculty members move from university to university without their prior misconduct standing in the way.

Fortney and Morris note that because current hiring procedures in academia allow individual departments to search and screen their candidates, cohesive and streamlined practices for hiring faculty are rare. Typically, hiring committees only contact references provided by the faculty candidates themselves, making it less likely that information about their possible prior sexual misconduct will be revealed.

The University of Wisconsin faculty screening policies specifically require an inquiry into whether the candidate has engaged in a history of sexual harassment and whether the candidate was ever subject to investigation or leave related to sexual misconduct. In addition, Wisconsin’s screening procedures require prospective hires to sign paperwork authorizing prior and current employers and references to release employee information to institutions in their system.

With these targeted measures, Wisconsin has become the first university system to adopt system-wide practices that directly address the sexual harassment problems in the faculty screening process, Fortney and Morris claim. They hope that, soon, other universities will be inclined to embark on this reformative journey.

But until then, Fortney and Morris argue that accrediting agencies could take action to address the “pass the harasser” phenomenon. Although universities have been acting independently for decades, they can benefit from pairing with accrediting agencies to assure that their hiring processes are sufficiently detailed and just, according to Fortney and Morris.

Fortney and Morris are hopeful that with new standards from accrediting agencies that call for more thorough screening processes, students and faculty can trust that their institutions are prioritizing safer learning and work environments.