Excerpted from a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story by Bill Schackner
A legal dispute more than three years old between Pennsylvania’s state university system and its faculty union may come to a head in the coming months as the state Supreme Court considers which of the following is true:
Was management of the State System of Higher Education within its legal right to require background checks on all system professors to keep children safe, even if state law required that only a portion of those faculty undergo checks?
Or, as the union argues, did those managers exceed their authority with a plan that ignored collective bargaining and wasted public funds since relatively few professors work with minors?
As of this week, neither side knows when the state high court will take up the case, but they are preparing for arguments. Last month, the justices agreed to review whether Commonwealth Court erred by allowing only a portion of the checks to go forward.
The case involves about 5,000 people represented by the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties who teach across the 98,000-student system. The issue of campus background checks has been a sensitive one in the state.
The dispute over them surfaced in 2015, while fallout from the Jerry Sandusky child sexual assault scandal continued at another institution, Penn State University. Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at Penn State, was arrested in 2011, convicted and sentenced to prison for assaults on boys, some on campus. Public outrage over Penn State’s handling of the matter led to the departure of top university leaders.
But the issue of background checks extended back to at least the previous decade, fueled by events including those involving Paul Krueger, then 55, an assistant professor in Penn State’s college of education. He had a stellar classroom record, but it was discovered in 2003 that he had served time decades before for a triple murder while he was a teenager in Texas in 1965.
Krueger resigned from Penn State after the news broke, and National University in La Jolla, Calif. rescinded a teaching offer to him. Within days, Penn State said it had planned to do criminal background checks on all faculty who apply for jobs. The State System said it was considering a system-wide policy.
Krueger, initially unavailable for comment, later spoke to ABC News, saying he was once suicidal but that he could not say what led him to commit such an act. He was paroled in 1979 and built a corporate and academic career.
“When I look back now … it’s like it’s a different person,” he said in the 2004 interview. “That night was very troubling to me, and it’s troubling to me right now, to try to recount it.”
In August 2015, the State System said it had implemented the criminal background checks on all its professors, part of an expanded policy instituted on its 14 university campuses requiring employee criminal checks and child abuse clearances.
Leaders said it would cost about $4 million for an initial round of checks on some 43,000 employees, student workers and volunteers. Union leaders said management was supposed to first negotiate before instituting the checks that went beyond the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law.
As amended in July 2015, that law exempted employees on college campuses from checks if their direct contact with children under 18 was limited to “matriculated students enrolled with the institution” and “prospective students visiting a campus,” according to an APSCUF Commonwealth Court filing seeking the injunction.
In response, State System officials said there are many more minors who visit the 14 universities than those who are actually enrolled. They cited as examples those taking part in summer academic camps, cultural events and other activities.
“This is an important effort, and one that is already well underway,” State System spokesman Kenn Marshall said at the time.
But the union’s president, Kenneth Mash, said that in 2015 that the issue was bigger than collective bargaining.
He said requiring checks of faculty who do not work with minors was an unwise use of public funds by a system under such serious financial stress it had cut budgets and considered faculty layoffs.
Citing data from 2015, when State System enrollment approached 110,000, Mr. Mash said the number of high school students taking courses was fewer than 760 across the system and that fewer than one in 10 professors taught those students.
“Is that wise policy?” he said.
“The issue is whether the system can refuse to negotiate about conditions of employment and can unilaterally impose those conditions,” Mr. Mash said this week with the lawsuit now headed to the state Supreme Court. “We have not developed a position on the background checks because the system has never agreed to bargain with us about the topic.”
Mr. Marshall from the State System said, “We’re pleased the Supreme Court has agreed to review our appeal.
“The health, safety and welfare of every individual who comes onto our campuses, whether a student, staff member or a visitor, is paramount. We believe the Protection of Minors policy and all of its components is an important part of our effort to provide safe, secure campus environments.”
The State System includes Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester universities of Pennsylvania.