National Academies Say Look to UC Davis to Learn How to Stop ‘Passing the Harasser’

Quick Summary

  • Candidates must sign release for comprehensive reference checks
  • No evidence of misconduct at other institutions, in 50 cases so far
  • Officials believe the waiver has deterred some potential applicants

A paper issued by the National Academies of Science, Medicine and Engineering last week says the University of California, Davis, serves as “a leading example for other institutions aiming to address the ‘passing the harasser’ problem through comprehensive reference checks.”

The UC Davis example is one of three publications released April 20 by the Action Collaborative on Preventing Sexual Harassment in Higher Education to serve as resources for higher education institutions as they work to prevent sexual harassment. 


Phil Kass, vice provost of Academic Affairs, appeared before a congressional committee in 2019 to testify about the UC Davis policy, saying: “At UC Davis, we believe it is our moral imperative to protect our students, as well as all other members of our campus community, and so in our minds this modest preventive step is long overdue.” Read the Dateline coverage.

The impetus for the UC Davis program came in 2018 when Binnie Singh, assistant vice provost of Academic Affairs, and Sheila O’Rourke, associate campus counsel, discussed what to do when rumors surfaced among some faculty about a potential candidate’s conduct at a previous institution.

They agreed to ask the candidate to sign a release allowing the university to contact the previous institution to see if there had been any allegations or findings of misconduct. The candidate agreed to do so, and the institution revealed that there had been no findings of misconduct.

This led Academic Affairs to start the pilot program that has expanded and is now being showcased as a national example for others to follow.

Candidates applying for a tenure-track faculty position at UC Davis must sign a release agreeing that, if they are the top candidate, UC Davis can contact their previous institution for a reference check, asking about any history of substantiated academic misconduct found after a formal investigation during the applicant’s time at the previous university.

If the investigation turns up findings of misconduct, the candidate can provide additional information. A panel including the hiring dean and department chair would then meet to determine whether the information should disqualify the candidate. In addition, final candidates receive another document asking them to state that they are not currently under investigation.

Waiver as deterrent

With more than 50 such reference checks so far, none have revealed evidence of misconduct at other institutions. Academic Affairs believes that requiring applicants to sign a waiver allowing UC Davis to ask about past misconduct has deterred some potential applicants. None of the candidates hired under the policy has been accused of misconduct since their hire.

The National Academic report states: “The UC Davis policy is innovative in that it is not limited to sexual harassment and sexual violence; rather, it introduces a coordinated process for conducting reference checks that also encompasses any form (or combination) of harassment or discrimination that impacts the applicant’s capacity to perform research, teaching or service duties.

“In this way, the policy reflects how people with multiple marginalized identities often experience sexual harassment in combination with other forms of harassment and/or discrimination.”

Along with the paper on the UC Davis program, the National Academies also released a paper on how the University of Wisconsin system approaches the problem.

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