Background Checks for Off-Campus Volunteers Prompt Concerns at WHPK

The deadline for submitting the station’s new contract has been pushed until later in the summer.

By Kaitlyn Akin

Under a new university policy, affiliates of WHPK, the University’s non-profit radio station, will have to submit to criminal background checks if they are not students or staff of the University.

“As a matter of policy, UChicago regular staff employees undergo routine criminal background and registered sex offender checks at the time of hire,” University spokesperson Marielle Sainvilus said. “In keeping with this practice, the University is requiring the same of volunteers whose work with RSOs includes extensive interaction with students or work in University facilities.”

According to former DJ and University student James Hines, many station affiliates object to the new regulations. “The backlash was pretty immediate from the community and it seemed like most of the other DJs were also confused and angry about the new policy,” Hines wrote in an e-mail. “People were pretty quick to voice their opposition, and I think most DJs are still pretty pissed off about the whole thing.”

Many DJs are concerned that the WHPK staff was not consulted about the change, that the University will have the power to bar affiliates on the basis of any criminal charge, and that this will isolate the station from non-tuition-paying volunteers from outside the University. “The University wants nothing to do with non-students, since they bring no money,” DJ Alex Anneken wrote in an e-mail.

One of the main points of contention is the disciplinary policy under the new contracts. “Any students and staff, when disciplinary action is required, will be referred to the deans or the relevant department heads (who, from personal experience, might slap you on the wrist). On the other hand, non-University affiliates are subject to disciplinary action from law enforcement,” Hines wrote.

Station leaders have met with the administration, and the deadline for submitting the new contract has been pushed from March 17 to some time later in the summer. The station initially announced the policy change to WHPK affiliates some time mid-February. Hines believes that the station hopes to find a compromise that assures the University doesn’t have complete executive power over WHPK decisions.

The News Office says that having a criminal record will not justify immediate disqualification from working with University organizations. “Each individual is assessed on a case-by-case basis that takes into account many factors, including the type of crime, how long ago it occurred, and whether it is part of a larger pattern of criminal conduct that has resulted in convictions,” Sainvilus said.

Hines doesn’t believe that the background checks are warranted and feels that the “close-knit” community of DJs would be able to identify any problematic individuals. “To my knowledge, there really aren’t any ‘bad apples’ among us, and so there’s really no need to have background checks at all—they don’t have the human element that is really the heart of WHPK,” he said.