each year, i get about a dozen calls or emails from people with criminal records who are interested in graduate study. many of them ask whether their record would bar them from becoming a professor. i usually say, “that depends” and offer stories in which certain records have or haven’t precluded employment at certain places. i then say that the academic track is tough (but not impossible!) and that their records will just make it that much tougher (but not impossible!).

so, i was disheartened to read this advertisement* while preparing a letter for an applicant to my beloved alma mater. i have nothing but love for wisconsin sociology, but i found that last bit about the background check disheartening. i bet it wasn’t the department’s idea to include it, since such lines usually emanate from university human resources departments. in fact, i’d wager that my friends and mentors in the sociology department would go to the wall (so to speak) for a good social scientist who had moved beyond his or her criminal record.
nevertheless, we know that advertisements send strong signals to potential applicants and — in light of wisconsin’s standing as one of the great departments of the world — to the discipline of sociology. employers certainly have a right to conduct background checks and to provide fair warning to potential applicants, but my worry is that these applicants view the line “Employment may require a criminal background check” as a much tougher screen that it actually is.
it makes me wonder who would be disqualified (e.g., arrestees, those convicted of felonies, or particular felonies), for how long (e.g., a conviction within the past 5 or 10 years), and at what stage of the hiring process they would be screened out. without such details, i’d guess that this boilerplate language has a chilling effect on applications from anyone ever arrested for anything.
*here’s the ad (emphasis added):
The University of Wisconsin Madison. The Department of Sociology invites applications for a position at the assistant professor level with preferred starting date August 2009. Applicants must hold a PhD or equivalent prior to the start of the appointment. Areas of specialization are open. Applicants should demonstrate excellence and productivity in research and a commitment to undergraduate and graduate teaching. Submit a letter of application, a curriculum vitae, and three letters of recommendation by mail to: Ivan Ermakoff, Search Committee Chair, Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin‐Madison, 1180 Observatory Drive, Madison, WI 53706‐1393. Finalists will be asked to supply copies of published and unpublished manuscripts for evaluation. To ensure full consideration, send all application materials by November 1, 2008. Unless confidentiality is requested in writing, information regarding applicants must be released upon request. Finalists cannot be guaranteed confidentiality. Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer. Women and minorities are urged to apply. Employment may require a criminal background check.