Student background checks

A piece yesterday in The Chronicle of Higher Education, U. of Virginia abandons proposed student background checks in favor of stricter self-disclosure (subscription required), reminded me of a story I worked on a couple of years ago about then-University of California, Merced, graduate student Jason D. West. West pled guilty to stealing approximately $10,000 worth of equipment and chemicals from the university in an effort to make methamphetamine (Student suspected of making meth, Student accused of making meth agrees to plea deal, Student sentenced for making meth).

While I can see the problems involved with trying to run background checks on entire student bodies, is there an argument to be made that it would be worthwhile to run checks on undergraduate or graduate chemistry researchers? Both West and another chemistry student who was convicted of using university resources to synthesize drugs, former San Diego State University student Matthew H. Finley, had previous drug-related convictions. And aside from illegal drugs synthesis, I can see there being concerns about other areas of chemistry, such as working with energetic materials. (No, this is not an issue that has come up regarding the Texas Tech incident, I just have explosives on my mind this week.)

At the time I reported on West, I found only one school–the University of Texas, Austin–that ran background checks on graduate students. “The university mandated them for staff and faculty, and we decided to extend it to grad student employees,” John Baxendale, administrative manager for UT Austin’s chemistry department, told me at the time. “We basically began doing them just because we thought it was a good practice.” The department was not using the checks for admissions but the results could prevent a student from being appointed to a teaching or research assistant position, Baxendale said.

What say you, readers? Do you think background checks of student chemistry researchers are a good or bad idea? Do you know of any other schools who are now doing them?

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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