University of Louisiana system looking at gaps in faculty and staff background checks

Process for vetting job applicants may change after story about UNO professor

By: - April 28, 2021 4:07 pm
University of New Orleans

The University of New Orleans has cancelled classes indefinitely as staff assess damages to the campus from Hurricane Ida. (Photo by Julie O’Donoghue/Illuminator)

The University of Louisiana system — which oversees nine universities across the state — is reviewing the way its schools screen job applicants following concerns over the University of New Orleans background check process came to light.

“Our provost will work with all nine of our universities to assess their pre-employment practices, identify gaps, and develop common protocols where appropriate,” said President Jim Henderson, who oversees the University of Louisiana System that includes UNO.

Henderson said he expects the review to last 30 to 45 days.

Henderson said his higher education system is conducting the review after the Illuminator published a story revealing that a UNO professor was hired in 2017 in spite of having been arrested for soliciting sex from an underage person using the internet eight years earlier.

The professor ended up being fired after a UNO student came forward to say he had tried to have sex with her in exchange for a higher grade in his class. The state ended up paying that UNO student $20,000 earlier in 2020 to settle a lawsuit brought by her over Vincent’s hiring. She had argued in court documents that UNO never should have hired the professor because of his previous arrest and should have fired him once the arrest information came to light.

UNO was not aware the professor, Shawn Vincent, had even been arrested for a sex crime before the school hired him to teach biology. He didn’t disclose it to the school as a job candidate, and it didn’t pop up on two separate background checks the school performed on him, according to documents submitted as part of the student’s lawsuit. School officials may have had a hard time finding information about his arrest because Vincent had his criminal record expunged.

Still, students found information about Vincent’s arrest for a sex crime when they searched for information about the new professor on the internet. A few people raised concerns to UNO administrators about Vincent’s employment after reading news articles online about him. UNO officials responded to these concerns by insisting they couldn’t fire Vincent over an arrest that didn’t lead to a conviction. Vincent had told UNO the arrest was a “mistake” and charges had never been filed against him. 

In fact, Vincent had been charged with the sex crime for which he was arrested. The jury deadlocked in his case and eventually prosecutors offered him a deal in which he pled guilty to a lesser crime that didn’t include a sex offense. But UNO wasn’t aware of that portion of Vincent’s criminal history until last week when the Illuminator contacted the school to comment on its story. 

While the Vincent case has prompted a review, Henderson said he was happy with the way UNO President John Nicklow responded to the allegations of sexual harassment made against Vincent from the student. Just three days after the student provided details about the alleged sexual harassment, Nicklow fired Vincent.

“UNO responded quickly and decisively to the complaint of abhorrent behavior, which is a good thing,” Henderson said. “Now the issue is determining what could or should have been done to prevent the victimization.”

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.