The University of Wisconsin System is moving forward with a policy that would require its personnel files to document instances of sexual violence and sexual harassment perpetrated by employees, and would require the UW System to share such instances with other employers during reference checks. Following a wider review of the policy by shared governance groups and other universities, the policy is anticipated to be implemented in January 2019, and should be investigated further upon final release.
This potential policy began as a UW System work group created in response to a growing interest in combating sexual misconduct in schools, including federal and state laws which restrict K-12 schools from assisting a school employee to obtain a new job in a school, if the school knows or has a reasonable suspicion to believe that the employee committed a sex offense against a minor or pupil. This is in an effort to eliminate “pass the trash” reference check policies.
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The policy was further accelerated after it was discovered that Shawn Wilson, a former deputy Title IX coordinator at UW-Stevens Point, resigned while under investigation for sexual harassment. Wilson went on to work at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, in 2016, and UW-Eau Claire in 2017, again as deputy Title IX coordinator. Interestingly enough, one of his duties at these universities was to investigate sexual misconduct allegations. UW-Stevens Point determined the incidents, which consisted of Wilson making sexually charged comments and asking a female employee of a campus business to go home with him, likely happened. But when called for references, UW-Stevens Point officials did not disclose any information regarding Wilson’s misconduct allegations.
Following the revelation of this failure, Gov. Scott Walker requested the UW System fix their policies, saying he “thinks [sexual harassment] is something employers, in general, would want to know.” The UW System has since approved a resolution calling for a more thorough, uniform reference check policy. Regent Vice President Drew Petersen said, “Ensuring the safety of our students and our employees at every institution is one of the most vital responsibilities of the Board of Regents. As we develop and implement these policies, we must be clear that employee misconduct at one UW System institution will not be hidden if they seek to work somewhere else within UW System. We are proactively taking steps to prevent such occurrences.”
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This policy is a valiant effort to prevent future failures, but it should also be instituted in a way which continues to protect the privacy and due process rights of current and former UW System employees. While we obviously don’t want to withhold punishment from those individuals who have been found to engage in sexual misconduct, we must ensure we are certain these incidents actually occurred. Thankfully the new policy will only require employers to share substantiated instances of sexual violence and harassment. It must be remembered that sexual harassment by itself is not a crime under federal law — it is a form of gender discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Obviously no one wants individuals who do such acts to work with students or be in authoritative positions — especially not a position whose major job is investigating misconduct. We need to make clear the distinction between unsubstantiated and substantiated allegations. We need to ensure only substantiated and well proven allegations are shared to protect the innocent and avoid passing along false information.
Another way we can avoid sharing false information, and avoid defamation lawsuits, is by directing prospective employers to the human resources office. This removes the responsibilities from department chairs and supervisors, and puts in in the hands of individuals trained to handle such reference checks. By being careful of what information is shared and by directing misconduct history questions to a central office, the responsibility is removed from those with lesser training and experience with such interactions. This again ensures that privacy rights are protected, and that accuracy and truth prevail.
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This policy certainly appears to be a welcome step in the right direction to bring consistency in policies throughout the UW System. This consistency will ensure that all UW System universities are on the same page when it comes to personnel files and reference checks. It will help to keep our campuses safer as we continue to address issues of sexual misconduct and do so in a way that protects the rights of all parties involved.
Andrew Stein ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science and economics.