New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

A search firm failed to find misconduct allegations against NYU’s former athletics director. Here’s why.

A search firm executive and a director of hiring at a top university said executive search firms like the ones used in higher-level hiring decisions by NYU can miss key information on applicants’ criminal backgrounds and details kept in internal misconduct records.
Lauren Sanchez
(Lauren Sanchez for WSN)

Lawsuits, human resources reports, calls from victims and allegations compiled by labor unions — this is just some of the evidence of sexual misconduct NYU missed when it hired its former athletics director, Stuart Robinson, nearly four years ago. 

The university’s failure to find this information was likely unintentional, background checking experts and an administrator involved in hiring at another university told WSN. They said vetting processes used by executive search firms, like the ones used by NYU in higher-level hiring, often focus on providing only the required information on each candidate over deeply investigating potential hires. 

The use of search firms in higher education is on the rise. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, last year nearly 92% of universities used a search firm when hiring their presidents or for other senior leadership roles. These search firms usually cost around 30% of a candidate’s first-year salary to hire. Despite their cost and growing use, these firms may actually be missing a lot of information about applicants, such as mentions in lawsuits and misconduct complaints filed against them at previous workplaces.

This article is based on conversations with an executive at a prominent search firm and a director of hiring at a prominent U.S. university, as well as WSN’s previous reporting on NYU’s athletics department. The sources WSN spoke to, who asked to remain anonymous due to employment and privacy concerns, revealed that the hiring and vetting systems used by the majority of universities are dependent on individual honesty, and constrained by access to information.

Last fall, a WSN investigation into former athletics director Stuart Robinson revealed that Robinson had a record of sexual misconduct and harassment dating back to his time at the State University of New York, New Paltz. At New Paltz, the university Robinson worked for before coming to NYU, a former employee of Robinson’s named him in a lawsuit that alleged he made inappropriate comments toward her and repeatedly discriminated against women’s sports teams. 

Prior to WSN’s investigation into Robinson’s conduct, NYU had no knowledge of his transgressions at New Paltz, despite having used a search firm to perform a background check on him prior to his hiring. Experts said gaps in the information found during background checks occur in part because employers are trying to balance compliance with privacy and anti-discrimination laws with protecting the safety and best interest of students and faculty. 

According to the search firm executive who spoke to WSN, a screening typically starts with publicly available information. The university hiring director said that their institution runs applicant names through databases in the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice as a part of background checks, returning summaries of their criminal history, including prior arrests and convictions. 

At some universities, applicants’ credit histories are also checked and, if their role requires them to drive, applicants’ motor vehicle history can also be obtained.  The executive said applicants are also searched in sexual misconduct registries. 

However, the executive noted that any information included in lawsuits that do not name the applicant as the plaintiff or defendant do not surface in these checks. In the Title IX lawsuit in which Robinson was named, his name and misconduct allegations against him were included in the text of the complaint, but he was not named as the defendant. The executive said this likely led to the lawsuit being missed in Robinson’s background check.

The executive said search firms also verify an applicant’s academic background, and that the industry standard was to only verify the highest educational degree on their resume. However, they also said some firms go further and check every degree listed on an application.  

“We’re googling and doing all the same things, looking for areas of controversy or concern associated with that person,” the executive said. 

When it comes to vetting an applicant’s legal history, the executive said search firms often use the Public Access to Court Electronic Records, a database that allows for the search of case dockets and access to court records at a small fee. They said search firms put applicants’ names into PACER’s search tool, and review the cases that are returned. 

As part of WSN’s reporting on Robinson, both Robinson’s name and SUNY New Paltz, his previous employer, were imputed into PACER. Because New Paltz was named as the defendant in the Title IX lawsuit that named Robinson, not the former athletics director himself, the lawsuit did not come up when Robinson’s name was searched. 

In circumstances where harassment or misconduct in a workplace is only reported to a university or company’s human resources department and does not advance to the level of public record — such as when lawsuits are filed over misconduct complaints — search firms are not able to access those internal complaints by default. 

When Robinson left New Paltz, sources close to the university said he left behind a hefty human resources file with complaints filed by former colleagues from his nearly three decades there. However, when the search firm NYU used to hire Robinson called New Paltz as part of the vetting process, the school reportedly raised no “red flags” regarding his performance as an employee and gave the firm positive reviews of his work. 

The executive said that a search firm’s ability to access internal records kept by a former employer depends on what that university or company is willing to disclose. They said that most often, firms get access to nothing. Underreporting of harassment can also lead to misconduct being missed in a background check, the executive said. 

“If no one said anything 20 years ago, we are not going to find anything today,” they said.

The university hiring director confirmed that applicants’ internal records from former employers can be difficult to access during the hiring process.

“When there is a substantial allegation against a person and that organization did not follow through to the end by this person leaving the organization, none of that information will pop up on a consumer report,” the director said. “FBI or DOJ, none of that information would come up on one of those reports.” 

Multiple sources said that often, the most important information about an applicant will make its way to a search firm or university by word of mouth. The director said that as part of their university’s hiring process, staff may provide input on job candidates as well as information gleaned from personal connections through an online comment box.

It was through a personal account from a New Paltz alumnus that concerns about Robinson’s behavior were allegedly first raised to NYU. In an interview this past fall, former New Paltz student-athlete Rachel Purtell told WSN she called NYU’s Title IX office shortly after learning that Robinson was hired by the university. Purtell said that in this phone call, she shared her experience with sexual harassment involving Robinson with the Title IX office. NYU has not responded to requests for comment on whether or not the university was made aware of this phone call from Purtell.

“I also had personal experiences of sexual harassment within the department, with which Stuart was involved, and resulted in a great deal of my own emotional distress and mental anguish,” Purtell wrote to WSN this past fall. “I called NYU’s Title IX office to inform them of my own personal experiences and observations of Stuart’s behavior in the hope that having my conversation on record with them would enable them to more efficiently and effectively address his sexist and harassing behaviors when he inevitably repeated them at NYU.”

Last month, NYU announced the hiring of a new athletics director, filling the spot that Robinson has left vacant for months. Jake Olkkola, currently the senior associate athletics director at John Hopkins university has been chosen to be the university’s next athletics director. In a press release earlier this month Olkkola said that he was excited to be joining the department. 

According to conversations with multiple sources close to the athletics department, NYU used a search firm to find and vet Olkkola, although this time, a different one than was used to hire Robinson. Sources said the university had used the firm Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges Search to find Olkkola.

“This time it has been much more transparent,” one source said. “It feels like we might be all unhandcuffed from the regime we were under with Stuart and that we can breathe.”

Contact Ania Keenan at [email protected].

About the Contributor
Ania Keenan
Ania Keenan, Features Editor
Ania Keenan is a sophmore double majoring in Journalism and Data Science. She is from California and loves black coffee, long walks, writing poetry and reading non-fiction. When she is not working on the next features investigation, you can find her running along West Side Highway, listening to audiobooks or complaining about the cold.
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