The Need for Academic Employment Screening: An Analysis

October 26, 2022

Edward Mason

Edward Mason
Investigative Researcher

Introduction

In today’s academic job market, competition has become fiercer than ever. As of a 2014 study, professors in U.S. engineering programs have graduated an average of 7.8 new Ph.Ds. per every potential academic job opening, with less than 17% of recent Ph.Ds. in science, engineering, and health-related fields able to secure jobs in academia. Since the publication of this study, the problems have not lessened. The academic job market for humanities graduates has cratered in the past two decades;[1] for instance, eight psychology Ph.D. graduates were created per assistant professor job openings as of 2017.[2] Recent data now shows that the private sector employs nearly as many Ph.Ds. as educational institutions.[3] Across the board of academic disciplines, substantially more Ph.Ds. are granted to professor-hopefuls than there are (or ever will be) tenure-track job openings.[4]

As the supply of qualified Ph.D. candidates rapidly continues to outpace job openings in academia, increasingly desperate candidates take every opportunity to enhance their academic credentials by publishing more articles, attending more conferences, and winning more awards. After all, academia only accepts the best and the brightest to its hallowed ranks. But what if these outstanding curricula vitae (CVs) are actually filled with fluff, exaggerations, and outright lies?

Hiring committees generally think of fellow academics as trustworthy by virtue of their shared educational and professional credentials. However, a recent study has shown that academic applicants provide unverifiable or erroneous credentials on CVs at similar levels to non-academic job applicants. Nearly half of the applicants examined in the study had at least one unverified or inaccurate research citation on the CV, similar to the 55 percent error rate for résumés from other professions. The study concluded, “We do not know why applicants have unverified and inaccurate research citations on their CVs… and we have good reason to believe that some (perhaps many) are deliberate misrepresentations of their research accomplishments.”[5] Such a conclusion is a sobering reminder that academic institutions should screen candidates just as vigorously as they would in any other field. Following best practices in hiring is paramount in academia.

Faced with an abundance of qualified candidates, hiring committees often do not have the time to devote to due diligence. However, the above data clearly shows that concern for due diligence is warranted. Investigative research through a trusted background screening vendor offers academic employers the tools to help mitigate potential costly and embarrassing scandals, as well as the legal and financial risks associated with hiring an unqualified or dishonest candidate. By adhering to the following best practices for due diligence in academic hiring — tenure track professors, post-doctoral scholars, researchers, scientists, and upper-level administration — academic employers can maintain academic integrity and avoid institutional liability.

Improper screening of academic candidates can lead to costly problems for institutions.

Adequate due diligence and screening practices based on thorough investigative research can mitigate potential scandals for academic institutions. In recent years, numerous instances of institutions’ failure of due diligence have revealed the need to vet CVs with greater scrutiny and serve as cautionary tales to institutions involved in the hiring process.

In one case, West Virginia University (WVU) discovered that a professor had deliberately misled the hiring committee after he was nominated for an endowed position at WVU’s School of Public Health. Anoop Shankar, who stood to be in control of tens of millions of dollars in public funds, claimed to hold a Ph.D. in epidemiology and medical statistics from Mahatma Gandhi University, a prestigious medical residency at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, and to have published several research articles. None of this was , and a basic background check would likely not have revealed the extent of Mr. Shankar’s impropriety. A deeper level of screening was needed to protect the university’s reputation and its stakeholders.

Mr. Shankar would go on to mislead immigration authorities, misappropriate university funds and even attempt to frame a colleague for sexual assault in retribution for the colleague’s investigation of Mr. Shankar. Mr. Shankar even received a new position at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) using the same fake credentials for which he was then under investigation by WVU.[6] His employment at VCU only ended when NBC published a story on the fraud allegations at WVU. WVU’s president admitted that the university did not properly vet Mr. Shankar during the hiring process, stating: “The only common currency that we have as a university is our integrity and our transparency and, in this instance, we did not do well.”[7]

Academic integrity is not the only consideration in the due diligence of academic hires. Institutions stand to lose substantial money due to misspent wages, lengthy litigation, and reputational harm.

Henry Zimon, president of Albright College, abruptly resigned in 2004 after accusations that he misled the school about his publishing record. Mr. Zimon claimed to Albright’s search committee that he was in the process of publishing two books, although neither publisher claimed to have any knowledge of the books. Additionally, Mr. Zimon falsely claimed to have taught seminars at Harvard University.[8] Albright’s faculty passed a resolution demanding an explanation for the dubious publications, but Albright’s Board of Trustees stood behind Mr. Zimon. Ultimately, Albright was forced to retain legal counsel after trying to fire Dr. Achal Mehra, an associate professor of communications, following Dr. Mehra’s fervent efforts to expose Mr. Zimon.[9] Albright’s failure of due diligence placed the university in a challenging and legally perilous position and put the faculty dangerously at odds with the university administration.

Academic fraud persists among some of the top institutions in the U.S. Marilee Jones, dean of admissions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, resigned after MIT could not confirm the receipt of any of her degrees. A highly paid executive of the University of Utah misled the school about receiving a master’s degree from New York University and about several employment stints and awards. A former Polk State College professor was sentenced to five years in prison for faking doctoral credentials.

These examples are not isolated events, representing a pattern of both deliberate fraud and of missed opportunities to conduct simple due diligence. Furthermore, in light of the recent research discussed above, these incidents only represent a fraction of the potential scandals which have not become known. Failure to follow best practices in academic hires has created public embarrassment and consternation for universities and colleges.[10]

Best practices for academic screening.

In light of such scandals, academic institutions may consider best practices for all academic hires. Institutions may want to consider meticulously investigating top candidates’ CVs to verify the reported academic credentials. While not all errors on a candidate’s CV may be presented with the intent to mislead, conscientious candidates will take care to adjust their CVs once questions have been raised and will be glad to clarify any discrepancies, while deliberate efforts might wither under heightened scrutiny. Hiring committees must be aware of erroneous or exaggerated CV claims before they may become a liability for the employer down the road.

Best practices for academic screening include:

  • Verifying a candidate’s reported education. The degree-granting institution (or its third-party verification service) should be contacted to confirm that the individual received the reported degree(s) on the reported dates. While candidates misleading hiring committees and schools on degrees they hold is not as common as publication records, such problems have occurred. Many background screening companies offer verification of a candidate’s educational credentials by directly confirming awarded degrees.
  • Verification of a candidate’s teaching and/or research experience, as well as professional service history. While traditional employment verification may not be necessary for academic hires, an individual’s expertise within their discipline is of the utmost importance for assessing the candidate’s ability. A background screening company with a focus in higher education will offer verification of a candidate’s teaching and research experience through direct contact with the reported institution, media searches, and internet searches. Additionally, some companies can even conduct interviews with a candidate’s former colleagues — beyond those listed on the CV, those providing letters of recommendation, and those listed in application materials — to provide additional information about a candidate’s experience.
  • Confirmation of the candidate’s publication history. Most instances of erroneous information on job candidates’ CVs are found in their publication history. While unverifiable publications do not always arise from intentional misrepresentations, the hiring committee should be made aware of any inaccuracies. A candidate’s publication history from the CV would be assessed to discern that each publication is verifiable (i.e., located in a reputable library source and/or publisher website). While an unverifiable publication would not necessarily indicate that a candidate had explicitly lied to the committee, its discovery could give the committee opportunity in advance to seek an explanation or even reveal a problematic pattern. A background check vendor that specializes in investigative research will verify a candidate’s publication history, as presented to the hiring committee, is factually represented by checking the reported publications using extensive library searches and journal databases, as well as internet searches.
  • Examine publication history for questionable publications. As the competition for academics to publish in respected and leading journals intensifies, many scholars have allegedly been turning to so-called “predatory journals” that do not rigorously peer-review submissions and charge — sometimes substantial sums of money — for publication. According to The New York Times, one Thompson Rivers University professor reported faculty members who had received promotions and won awards via publications in dubious journals. Elsewhere, Queensborough Community College professors have raised concerns about the number of faculty publishing works in so-called predatory journals.[11] As these journals do not hold themselves to the same standards of scholarship as respected academic publishers, hiring committees should be made aware of the public perceptions of certain publications.
  • Verification of awards, honors, and/or fellowships. Academic awards and honors are critical in today’s extremely competitive job market, as such distinctions can help set candidates apart. The organization or school granting the award, honor, or fellowship should be contacted directly to verify that the candidate received what was reported. An investigative research-driven screening company should offer verification of a candidate’s reported awards, honors, and/or fellowships through direct contact with the granting institution and meticulous internet searches.
  • Confirming professional memberships and affiliations. Many academics claim membership in numerous professional organizations to demonstrate their involvement in their academic discipline. The organizations should be contacted directly to verify the candidate’s membership. While not all organizations provide direct verification of an individual’s membership, a pattern of unverifiable memberships would allow a hiring committee to seek further explanation from the candidate or would contextualize other patterns of unverified credentials.
  • Comprehensive litigation searches corresponding to the candidate’s known address history. Searches for criminal, divorce and civil suits in jurisdictions where the candidate has lived or worked can reveal legal actions a candidate might rather remain hidden. Confirmed legal actions would be summarized in an easy-to-read, legalese-free format to provide a hiring committee with a concise understanding of any potential matters.
  • Other due diligence searches for adverse media, National Sex Offender Registry, credit history, social media screening, sex offenders registry, and motor vehicle records.

Academic Screening at First Advantage

For years, academia has coasted on its reputation as a collective of fair-minded individuals who value honor, integrity, scientific rigor, and discipline while remaining oblivious to the various fraudsters who have lied and schemed their way into competitive and prestigious positions in the field. However, as we have seen, academia is not immune to the due diligence failures and explosive media scandals that plague other professions. Academic scandals can be extremely costly, both monetarily and in terms of public perception, and therefore, academic hiring requires the same due diligence expected of any other profession.

Academic faculty are the public faces and guardians of an institution’s reputation, and institutions must take every precaution to ensure that new hires are not only hired for their prestige and claimed experience but also for their integrity. First Advantage offers due diligence, following these best practices, to screen academic candidates.

[1] https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2021/02/09/new-reality-humanities-phds-transformation-not-crisis-moment-opinion

[2] https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19301/data

[3] https://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/doctoratework/2017/

[4] https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2021/06/22/how-phd-job-crisis-built-system-and-what-can-be-done-about-it-opinion

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7203623/

[6] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/ivory-tower-phony-sex-lies-fraud-alleged-w-va-university-n199491

[7] https://wvmetronews.com/2014/10/07/wvu-admits-mistakes-in-academic-fraud-case/

[8] https://www.chronicle.com/article/albright-college-president-who-was-accused-of-lying-about-his-credentials-resigns/

[9] https://www.upi.com/Archives/2001/07/14/Truth-irrelevant-to-professors-defense/7025995083200/

[10] For more examples, see:

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2007/04/27/mit-dean-claimed-unearned-degrees

https://www.theledger.com/story/news/crime/2017/03/16/former-polk-state-professor-david-broxterman-gets-5-years-for-faking-credentials/21949883007/

https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/nus-reviewing-visiting-professor-credentials-academic-fraud-1952721

https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/internacional/en/scienceandhealth/2019/05/i-got-carried-away-says-brazilian-researcher-who-lied-about-harvard-credentials.shtml

https://www.fox13now.com/news/fox-13-investigates/fox-13-investigates-high-paid-university-of-utah-executive-lied-on-resume-published-fake-articles

[11] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/30/science/predatory-journals-academics.html

 
This content is offered for informational purposes only. First Advantage is not a law firm, and this content does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.  Information in this may not constitute the most up-to-date legal or other information.
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