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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Spear: UW does not perform background checks

In the wake of the convictions of three University of Wisconsin-Madison professors this summer, UW Provost Peter Spear confirmed Thursday the university does not perform criminal background checks when hiring prospective faculty.

In addition, he said, once an employee has been hired by UW, routine background checks to snuff out criminal activities are also not conducted.

"We do background checks of new employees in certain job categories, but not professors," Spear said.


Controversy arose when the convictions of Professors Roberto Coronado, Steven Clark and Lewis Keith Cohen came to light over the summer. Coronado is currently serving an eight-year prison sentence for child molestation, Clark is serving a one-year sentence for stalking and Cohen was released from jail Sunday after serving a 30-day term for child enticement.

State Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, said the university must do more to prevent the employment of felons at UW.

"We have examples now of professors using university resources to commit crimes," Suder said. "This just signals the university's lack of understanding of common sense."

But even if the university had investigated the history of the three professors in question upon their hiring, Spear said, the efforts would have been fruitless because the professors had no previous criminal records prior to their employment at UW.

"Had we done background checks on Coronado, Cohen and Clark, there wouldn't have been anything," Spear said.

Suder said the state will try to intervene in order to instill new employment policies.

"The Legislature is going to force them to do background checks of their employees," he said. "The UW seems to think that for some reason, they are above the law."

If the university were to perform criminal background checks on prospective employees and decide not to hire based on a previous record, Suder said the state would ensure the UW System schools would be exempt from any discrimination lawsuits that would arise.

"Had the university done any check into this individual's criminal history, they wouldn't be in this mess, so clearly the UW needs to do a better job of recruiting their employees," Suder said in regard to the university's lack of a background check when hiring Cohen.

To begin to remedy the situation, Suder said state legislators will begin their own research into how many serious felons are working at the UW since the System has not yet disclosed such information.

"Several offices are combining resources to find out how many felons are working," Suder said. "We are going to start campus-by-campus; I think we'll start at the place that has had the most controversy — UW-Madison."

During the course of Cohen's tenure at the university, he was arrested in 1998 for violating a restraining order his estranged wife had filed against him. Cohen was charged with six counts of violating the order, although the charges were later dismissed. Cohen was subsequently promoted to Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature in 2000.

The university "would not have necessarily known" about Cohen's actions because periodic checks of criminal actions are not performed by the school, Spear said.

"We don't start an investigation until someone files a complaint," Spear said. "We don't go look at the police blotters; we do not know what legal actions are going on. We do not do background checks."

Scott Moss, a Marquette University assistant professor of law, said current state laws hinder the university system's ability to deny employment to potential faculty because of previous criminal history.

"To not hire someone because of a criminal record, the record has to be relevant to the job — it's easy to make that showing with a teacher of minors," Moss said. "Basically, it's easier to see a wide range of crimes that are relevant to being an elementary school teacher than a university professor."

Though Wisconsin does have laws that bar the state from discriminating based on criminal record, the Legislature could make an exception for the UW System, but it would have to decide whether UW merits an exception to not hire someone based on this, Moss said.

Cohen was arrested last March in Milwaukee County for attempting to engage in explicit contact with a 14-year-old boy. He returned to work at his Van Hise office Aug. 22 and continued his employment at UW under the provisions of a work release granted by Milwaukee County until Spear decided to remove Cohen from campus and place him on paid administrative leave Sept. 15.

Cohen's previous actions, which were documented in public records, indicate scuffles with the law in the past.

According to a signed affidavit obtained by the Badger Herald, Cohen's ex-wife alleged Sept. 3, 1998, that Cohen had improper contact with their son, who was then a young teenager.

"[Cohen's wife] has informed your affiant of numerous occasions where [Cohen] has conducted himself inappropriately in communications with the minor child (Cohen's son), with [Cohen] exposing the minor child to explicit sexual information and devices."

The Badger Herald has also obtained a March 3, 1999 letter from Cohen's minor son to a judge stating he fears encounters with his father.

The letter describes the son's apprehension of Cohen picking him up in order to go to Cohen's house as per the custody ruling set forth by the courts.

"[My father] also says that he is going to come here today … and that I'd better be outside the house waiting for him or else 'things are going to be a lot worse,'" the son wrote.

At the time, Cohen's ex-wife was leaving the country and their son was set to stay with Cohen for the duration of the trip.

"I am scared today … that my father is going to come and something bad is going to happen," Cohen's son wrote.

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