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Rackham student David Helps, a member of the Graduate Employees’ Organization, is heading up a working group in collaboration with other student organizations on campus on the new felony disclosure policy. The policy, which requires the immediate disclosure of all felony charges and convictions for all University of Michigan employees, does not apply to those protected by a union.
Even though the policy does not apply to union members, Helps said he has other roles at the University that are impacted by the policy and GEO has an obligation to advocate for the entire student body.
“I have other capacities at the University, including as a research assistant, that are impacted by this,” Helps said. “And many people within GEO hold such positions, so in addition to being GSIs (graduate student instructors), they might have other paid positions that are affected by this … you know, all of us as GSIs as GSSAs, as graduate students taking courses, are part of a broader U of M community. And it’s important for us to show solidarity invested in creating an equitable, safe and inclusive University community.”
The working group is a collaboration between GEO and other student organizations, including UMich Behind Bars and the Carceral State Project. While the working group is still in its founding stages, Helps said the goals of the group are to amplify what work is already being done, to draw more attention to the policy and to foster an environment for productive dialogue about the effects of the policy and others like it.
The felony disclosure policy has garnered a lot of criticism from different groups on campus. Some say it violates due process and disproportionately targets minority communities through flaws in the criminal justice system. The Carceral State Project released an open letter to the University on the policy, and it currently has 1,867 signatures. In addition, the University administration has been criticized by the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs for not asking for their input on the policy before its implementation.
Helps echoed these concerns and said the University has other policies regarding people who have a criminal history that is not made public. He said the University should be moving towards banning the box and stopping background checks rather than implementing policies like the felony disclosure policy.
“In addition to the most recent policy, the University also has a number of policies, many (of) which are not public, that prevent people with criminal convictions or felony convictions or felony charges from attending the University and working for the University,” Helps said. “It’s my hope, personally, to see them actually align the set of policies that exist at the University more with the best practices of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Department of Education and what many other universities are doing.”
Helps said he hopes the University administration will become more transparent and make all policies regarding the criminal justice system available to the public. He feels policy should be rescinded and replaced with a new one that does not further criminalize those with a criminal history.
“We know what policies would actually address sexual harassment and sexual assault, and this policy isn’t that, you know,” Helps said. “So, my hope is that we would be able to have the University first make those policies publicly available, because many of them are not, and then begin to address those policies and make them much more in line with what the general trend amongst employers and institutions of higher learning is.”
University President Mark Schlissel addressed the policy at the University’s Board of Regents meeting on March 28. He said the policy was created with the intention of keeping the campus safe. He noted the University has been doing background checks during the application process for six years and this policy does not mean an employee who disclosed a felony charge or conviction would face consequences.
“University leaders believe that information about a faculty or staff member’s criminal activity helps us maintain a safe community,” Schlissel said. “We’ve been obtaining such information on most new employees by way of a pre-employment background check since 2013. The new policy requires disclosure of current felony charges and convictions by current employees. To be absolutely clear: History of a felony conviction does not automatically prevent an applicant from working at the University, nor would it necessarily result in a current employee losing their job.”
Schlissel then cited an example of a situation when the policy would be useful. He addressed aspects of the controversy surrounding the policy and stated the University will review the cases closely to assure it does not have a stronger impact on minority groups.
“Knowing about a serious criminal charge allows the University to take timely action in instances where there could be a significant risk of harm in the workplace,” Schlissel said. “For instance, if a staff member who works with or near children is being prosecuted for or is being convicted of felony assault of a child, a disclosure would allow us to remove the individual from that environment. We will carefully monitor the results of this new policy to make sure it does not have disproportionate effects on specific subsets of our community.”
LSA junior Hannah Agnew, a student organizer with UMich Behind Bars, said despite what the University says about this policy, it will inherently impact minority populations more significantly due to the nature of the criminal justice system.
“Inevitably, even if the University is saying that they’re not going to target people of color or low-income status, that is what the carceral state does in the way that it functions,” Agnew said. “Inevitably, people that have convictions are people of color or low-income communities, those are the communities that tend to be over policed and surveilled, so, inevitably it is those people and those groups that the University is going to deter through this policy and target. There is no way to really separate those communities from this policy because they’re the ones that disproportionately have prior convictions and records.”
GEO President Emily Gauld, a Rackham student, said GEO is a union that advocates for all University students to make the University the most conducive environment for higher education. Gauld discussed how GEO decided to get involved regardless of the policy’s impact on members of the union because it does impact graduate students not part of GEO and other members of the University community due to the disproportionate effects the criminal justice system has on people of color and those of lower socioeconomic status.
“We recognize that the policy has a lot of reasons, a lot of concerns, that kind of revolve around the existing biases in the criminal justice system and the implications that a policy like this could have for not only our members but the broader University community,” Gauld said. “And we are really dedicated to finding a solution that would avoid putting an unwanted or unnecessary extra barrier for graduate student workers that are already facing a difficult system, so we recognize the problems with it.”
Gauld said while GEO understands why the University administration created this policy, they also believe there is a more effective way for the University to achieve its goal.
“We also recognize that our members and many others have said that they recognize that there are reasons that the University might create a policy like this and we’re also interested, you know,” Gauld said. “We want to acknowledge those reasons but also find a better solution for what exactly it is the University’s trying to achieve and we don’t feel like this policy is the best means to do that.”
Helps discussed the importance of collaborating with other organizations on campus through this working group. He said the felony disclosure policy impacts everyone on campus and claimed the University did not ask for any input from the expert faculty and staff or students who would be affected by it.
“We are the flagship public university in the state, and so this is an opportunity to overcome all sorts of silos that we end up in, and to actually points to a way in which this policy, which was, you know, totally arbitrarily and un-transparently, undemocratically, and very quietly forced through,” Helps said. “This is the type of policy that affects all of us in that it’s an opportunity to think about what we have in common as people who play different roles within the University but who are all, nonetheless, affected by this policy that’s being forced upon us without any of our input in telling the University what policies would actually make us feel safe.”
Gauld said GEO has an obligation to advocate for the well-being of all graduate employees at the University of Michigan. She said having multiple student groups come together to pressure the University to rescind the policy magnifies the strength of their voices.
“I think that it’s important for all of the student groups to get involved because it’s very much the reason that organizations like GEO and other student groups exist because we have a better chance of having a voice when we all voice that together, when we come together,” Gauld said. “So I think that, especially GEO as a labor union, has a responsibility for us to stand up for our members who might be facing unnecessary discrimination in the workplace because of a policy like this.”