Cardinal View: Criminal history should continue to be left off of UW System applications

Chancellor Rebecca Blank intends to revisit the school’s policy on requesting applicant’s criminal histories.

Image By: Morgan Winston and Morgan Winston

The question can be phrased in different ways: Some universities ask about whether prospective applicants have been convicted of a misdemeanor. Others ask about academic violations or if you have a pending sexual offense charge.

But the UW System’s application policy currently does not ask for or take into account a student’s criminal history at all. A Jan. 26 statement by UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, revealing the criminal history of a student who wanted to start an “alt-right” group on campus, suggested a review of that policy.

“I will engage the Board of Regents and the System in a discussion and request that the board consider a review of this policy,” Blank said, adding that the possible adjustment in UW System policy could potentially have an effect on campus safety.

However, there is no evidence to support Blank’s claim that looking at criminal history in the admissions process keeps campus safer, according to Robert Stewart, a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota whose dissertation work investigates the use of criminal records in the college admissions process.

"There is no empirical evidence that admitting students with criminal records leads to higher campus crime rates,” Stewart said. “There haven't been a lot of studies on this, but my position is that if you're going to make a big decision like this, that you should have some evidence for it."

The move to re-evaluate UW’s criminal history admissions policy is a rash and unjustified attempt to make campus feel safer—but not actually be safer. It serves as a means to quell the fears of parents, legislators and members of the university community, but would be ineffective in fulfilling its alleged purpose.

Not only is there no evidence to suggest that criminal history questions on college applications are an effective tool for minimizing campus crime, but including these questions actually threatens the campus community by discriminating against already marginalized groups.

"I don't believe in using someone's criminal history at all in the admissions process because of what it could do to predominantly people of color,” Associated Students of Madison Chair Carmen Goséy said.

Cecelia Klingele, an assistant professor of law at UW-Madison, echoed Goséy’s point.

“There certainly are concerns that any time you're looking at criminal history, you're going to have a different effect on students of color because in the United States, individuals of color are more likely to have criminal records,” Klingele said.

A report from the U.S. Department of Education, entitled “Beyond the Box: Increasing Access to Higher-Education for Justice-Involved Individuals,” from May 2016 supports both Klingele and Goséy’s remarks. The report found that “more often than not, the admissions process is one of the many barriers that justice-involved people face, particularly people of color, who are disproportionately represented in our nation’s justice system.”

The State University of New York system announced that starting in 2018, students applying to SUNY schools will no longer be asked whether they have a felony conviction, saying the goal is to provide the “broadest possible access to quality public higher education.”

In March 2015, the University of Minnesota system changed their admissions processes after finding that these questions are “violating the first ‘Value’ of the Office of Equity and Diversity,” as African Americans and other communities of color are disproportionately subjected to its effects.

The root of the issue in considering criminal history in the college admissions process is its ambiguity. Higher education institutions rarely publicize how they will use this information in the admissions process, and, as a result, individuals affected by this policy may be deterred from applying all together.

“Unless policies are extraordinarily limited and transparent, the danger is that individuals that have any sort of criminal history will self-select out of the system and not even bother to apply,” Klingele said. “And that can have a very negative effect on the ability of people in our communities who have maybe even minor criminal histories to access higher education and all of the doors that it opens."

Also, admissions departments are not qualified to evaluate the crimes that applicants may have committed, according to Stewart.

“[Interpreting criminal history] is often a thing put on by admissions offices who are not trained criminologists or law enforcement or anything like that,” Stewart said. “They don't have the expertise to evaluate these things.”

While “the safety of our campus community is [her] top priority,” Blank’s suggestion that the UW System should review its admissions policy is reactionary and nearsighted. Reviewing a policy that is known to be discriminatory further poses a threat to a campus community that already struggles to be inclusive.

Blank concluded her statement by saying that the university “will not tolerate discrimination against any student.” Ironically, a potential policy adjustment would discriminate against individuals before they even step on campus.

The UW System does not currently consider criminal history in the admissions process, something Blank believes “ensure[s] that students who have made mistakes, but paid their debt to society, are not prevented from accessing education.” Discrimination is something that we wholeheartedly oppose, and because of this, the current admissions policy should stay the same.

As chancellor, Blank’s goal should be to carry on the great tradition of our university and help move it “all ways forward.” Looking at criminal history in the admissions process, however, would certainly be a step back.

How do you feel about the UW System's policy regarding the role of criminal history in the application process? Please send all comments, questions and concerns to editorialboard@dailycardinal.com.

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