Thursday’s arrest of Yale University employee Raymond Clark in the murder of Yale graduate student Annie Le — as well as conflicting reports regarding Clark’s character — have led some to question how Yale could hire a man capable of such a horrific crime in the first place.
Descriptions of Clark, whose DNA matches evidence found at the crime scene, according to New Haven Police Department, have ranged from “a normal guy” to a controlling boyfriend with anger issues. His supervisor reported that “nothing in the history of his employment at the university gave an indication that his involvement in such a crime might be possible,” according to an e-mail sent Thursday to students by Yale President Richard C. Levin.
The fact that Clark’s allegedly violent nature went unnoticed may suggest that, no matter how hard it tries, a university that employs thousands can never completely ensure the safety of its student employees from non-student workers. Levin said in his e-mail that the case “says more about the dark side of the human soul than it does about the extent of security measures.”
Still, some will question whether Yale failed to pick up on any indications that Clark was dangerous.
According to the university’s Web site, Yale employs background checks on candidates for positions ranging from “management and professional positions, clerical and technical positions and service and maintenance positions.” Levin did not say in his e-mail whether Clark was screened. Yale last updated its screening policy in 2007, long after Clark began work in 2004.
Questions Wednesday to Yale’s Human Resources and Administration about its background policy were referred the Office of Public Affairs, which referred to the Web site. The Office of Public Affairs also said it was not discussing the case.
“A thorough and reliable background check is vital in determining whether your candidate will be an asset or a liability to your department,” the Web site says. “As the largest employer in New Haven County, Yale hired over 2,289 new staff members in 2006. Pre-employment screening will help to ensure that we continue to hire the right people, for the right jobs, at the right time.”
The screenings include, among other things, social security number verification, a criminal history check, and employment verification from three previous employers. Yale contracts ADP, which describes itself as “one of the world's largest providers of business outsourcing solutions,” to do the screenings.
Mandy King, who has worked as a medical assistant at Yale’s School of Medicine for two years, said she had to complete a thorough background check before she was hired.
“After all of my interviews, and approval for hire, it was almost a full week before the extensive background check came back,” King said. “I will say that the security is tight in the research labs, [and] that is one of the things that has upset us the most in the Yale Community.”
King, who works with both students and researchers, said she and fellow employees are deeply saddened that Le was presumably killed “by someone who was one of us.”
“We are so saddened that such a bright, young person as seen such a tragic end of her life,” she said.
Like many institutions, universities usually perform background checks for employees working in secure locations such as Le’s lab.
No matter the school and extent of the screening, background checks inevitably represent the “overarching goal of ensuring a safe environment for students, faculty, staff, patients and guests,” according to Phil Hampton, assistant director of UCLA's Media Relations and Public Outreach.
UCLA takes its screening process “very seriously,” Hampton said, and takes specific care when the employee will be working around students. Applicants with a criminal record are reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
Kathy Bryant, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill communications director, said UNC also pays close attention to criminal records.
"Each check that's returned with a criminal conviction is reviewed on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “The relationship of any conviction to the position for which the individual is being considered is taken into consideration as a part of that. So you might have a situation where someone had a financial conviction on their records and they're applying for an accounting position. That's something that would've been taken into consideration as part of the decision making process as to whether a conviction would arise to a level that would keep a person from being employed.”
Even when workers are thoroughly screened prior to employment, student employees must extend a level of trust to the people with whom they interact every day.
“The work of the university requires us to engage with each other in the classroom, to collaborate in the laboratory, and to trust one another in workplaces across the campus,” Levin said in his e-mail. “In many, even most respects, this university is a model of citizenship and civility. It will take the efforts of everyone to maintain that standard.”