Biggest analysis of sexual offenders employed by US universities says sector has been complacent on safeguarding
US universities should be barred from receiving federal funding unless they introduce criminal background checks on all incoming staff, according to a researcher who has called for a “predator database” to stop child sex offenders from gaining leadership roles within academia.
While some universities voluntarily vet all employees, this “is not a widespread practice nor is it federally mandated”, with state-level laws on background checks generally applying only to those who work with children, explains a paper published in the Journal of Human Trafficking that identified and analysed 223 cases in which higher education staff were arrested, investigated or convicted of sexual offences involving children, often involving indecent images of minors.
In many cases, it was students, not university administrators or faculty, who exposed the presence of convicted sexual offenders on campus, explained the study’s author, Lori Handrahan, a visiting professor at Costa Rica’s University for Peace. “These cases happened at prestigious universities – that’s worrying if it’s falling to students rather than administrators on $100,000 [£77,000]-plus to uncover these people,” Dr Handrahan told Times Higher Education.
“If the students are braver than the faculty on this, what does that tell us about how seriously higher education is taking this problem?”
The study, which profiled cases dating back to 2000, also revealed that the vast majority of sexual offenders discovered working in universities were white men holding senior leadership positions.
“It was not campus janitors or food service workers, nor was it early career academics, who were committing offences – it was men in leadership roles,” explained Dr Handrahan, who believed many had “tried to gain access to [students] in vulnerable situations”.
The failure of most universities to conduct background criminal record checks was particularly concerning because “horrific” offences involving indecent images of children – which she classed as child trafficking (“you don’t need to be driving a child around to facilitate this abuse”) – were often a marker of future sexual offending, argued Dr Handrahan.
This was the situation regarding the former Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar, who was sentenced to die in prison in 2017 for sexually abusing hundreds of girls and young women, including those on the US women’s national gymnastics teams. More than 37,000 indecent images of children were found on his computer, she explained.
The Nassar scandal and the conviction of Penn State University football coach Jerry Sandusky on child molestation charges had helped to highlight the problem in US academia, but the scale of offending was not yet known, said Dr Handrahan. “People want to believe it is one or two bad apples. They don’t want to think this behaviour is pervasive, that it could be their colleague or professor – but it could be,” she said.
Tougher regulatory action could also involve federal research funders withholding cash unless safeguarding is improved, Dr Handrahan said, while the Department of Education should establish a “predator database” against which convictions could be easily checked.
Universities should also be more vigilant about the content that academics viewed online, with site blockers and harsher penalties for those who access harmful content, she added.
“You don’t come across these things by accident. In eight years of researching this area, I never once have been in danger of accidentally clicking on what is clearly obscene content. This is a strategy used by criminal defence lawyers – it’s not something I buy at all.”