UW considers adding criminal background question to undergraduate application

When two level-three sex offenders enrolled at the UW for winter quarter 2012, students, parents, faculty, and even legislators expressed concern.

“Getting into the University of Washington is pretty competitive, and we’ve turned down students with exemplary records,” Provost Ana Mari Cauce said. “There was a sense of ‘What happened here? Why are these students here?’ that got us to thinking, ‘What do other universities do to avoid situations such as this?’”

As a result, the UW is now considering adding a new question or two regarding criminal and disciplinary history to undergraduate applications. The questions are yet to be determined. If these questions are added, they will appear on all undergraduate UW applications during the fall admission cycle in 2014. Administrators say a decision should be made in the next month.

Some graduate programs, such as the school of law and the school of dentistry, already include a criminal background question in applications. Eventually, all graduate applications may also include criminal history questions. 

“We’re just trying to think about doing exactly the right thing, given our needs to be accessible,” said Eric Godfrey, vice president and vice provost of Student Life. “On the other hand, … [we have a] high obligation to ensure that this campus is safe.”

Proponents of adding questions are still trying to find ways to ask the question that would ensure safety without discriminating against students from disadvantaged backgrounds or those with disciplinary histories. The question would not necessarily be used to deny admission to everyone with a disciplinary history. Administrators say situations would be handled on a case-by-case basis.

“We would ask the students to explain the circumstances and tell us why he or she would not be a safety concern for the campus,” Godfrey said. “We would take that into account before we made an admissions decision.”

Godfrey said they university is more concerned with individuals who have committed higher-level and more violent crimes — such as weapon-related or sex-related crimes — as opposed to those who have committed minor offenses.

The question has been part of an ongoing discussion with faculty and student leaders. Senior Tyler Adamson, Student Advisory Board chair, said he supports the idea of adding a criminal background question to undergraduate applications as long as the question does not prevent all people with criminal backgrounds from attending the UW. 

Julio Ahumada, a senior member of a UW RSO called MEChA that represents the Chicano student community, is concerned that such questions might scare people away from the application process, such as undocumented students and students with minor or major disciplinary histories.

“People change. People deserve second chances, and I feel like [a criminal background question] is not really helping determine one’s academic usefulness,” Ahumada said. “I think there needs to be more research into whether schools that ask these questions have shown any significant [difference] compared to schools that don’t. I would like to maybe see some more research before we decide to do anything like that.”

Cauce said she is in favor of adding the question, whether it’s before or after acceptance to the university. The mechanics of the process are still under consideration.

“It’s not a question of ‘We would never, under any circumstances, admit someone who has committed a felony crime,’” Cauce said. “But rather, that’s one of those things where we would want to look at it a little bit more closely.” 

Reach reporter Imana Gunawan at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @imanafg

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