UW adds criminal background question to undergrad admissions application

Criminal Background Question

Criminal Background Question -

Starting in 2014, the University of Washington will include a criminal background question in its undergraduate applications.

Photo by Joshua Bessex

Starting fall 2014, the UW will include a criminal background question in undergraduate admissions applications.

The decision came last spring after months of discussions between administrators, student groups, and faculty members. The UW will follow the steps of Western Washington University (WWU), Eastern Washington University (EWU), and 488 other colleges and universities throughout the nation that use the Common Application program for undergraduate applications.

Procedures regarding the criminal background question may vary somewhat across the three UW campuses. UW-Seattle’s question will specifically ask whether the applicant has a criminal history of violent felonies and whether the applicant is classified as a sex offender who is required to register as such. Generally, level two or three sex offenders are considered to be at moderate or high-level risk of reoffending. The Office of the Provost released a statement Friday stating administrators will neither conduct universal criminal background checks on prospective students nor ask about misdemeanors, nonviolent felonies or drug-related crimes, low-level sexual offenses, or high-school disciplinary actions.

“If you look at the question that most universities use, and that’s usually because they use the Common Application, it’s a relatively broad question,” Provost Ana Mari Cauce said. “That’s not what we’re interested in.”

In a correspondence with faculty members, Cauce said that’s the case in order to avoid further perpetuating the racial disparity in the criminal justice system. Currently, studies show the disproportionately large percentage of people of color in the criminal justice system is mostly caused by misdemeanor charges or nonviolent, drug-related crimes.

The consideration of a criminal-background question began earlier this year due to a situation in winter 2012, when two level-three sex offenders enrolled at the UW. According to Cauce, students, parents, and even legislators expressed concerns. She said the transition did not go well, both for the students in question and other UW students.

During the consideration process, administrators consulted other universities to ensure the most appropriate procedure would be taken if or when a student answered “yes” to the question. They have also conducted research and consulted with student and faculty groups such as the ASUW, the Student Advisory Board of the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity, and the Faculty Council of Academic Standards.

“We were glad that the student voice was sought out in that decision,” ASUW President Michael Kutz said.

Once an applicant answers “yes” to the question, it will not mean automatic denial of admission, Cauce said. Applicants will be able to explain their situation or provide further information, as well as send letters of recommendation for consideration. The application will then be referred to a review committee, which will include faculty and staff with expertise in diversity, criminal justice, and campus safety, among other focuses.

The review committee will operate separately from the holistic admissions review of the Admissions Office. Though specifics are currently still under consideration, Cauce said prospective review criteria will include matters concerning community safety and an assessment of whether the applicant will pose a safety threat to campus.

While some support the inclusion of the question, others say it might further marginalize those trying to improve their lives. A group called Huskies For Fairness (HFF), established last May by five graduate students, recently launched an online petition against the implementation of the question. It has received nearly 3,800 signatures from students, faculty, and community members.

Sean Johnson, graduate student and HFF representative, wrote in an email that the group aims to organize against the new policy with “the intention of halting its consideration or getting it rescinded.” Their petition includes citation of studies that both reject the UW’s safety-based reasoning for the new policy and urge the university to reconsider its implementation.

“There is no way for this policy to be universally applied without bias and prejudice entering in to the implementation process, and we collectively believe it should be aborted,” Johnson wrote.

The group has had multiple written correspondence with Cauce, all of which are posted for public viewing on HFF’s petition on the website Change.org.

For the next few months, administrators will continue to consult local and national experts to find the most appropriate practices, be they narrowing the question even further, following up with applicants, or even reconsidering the existence of the question itself.

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

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