The University of Michigan will no longer require applicants to mark a box asking whether they have a misdemeanor charge filed against them, according to University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald.
“The university continues to require that applicants disclose certain felony charges,” Fitzgerald wrote in an email. “Changes made for this year include updating application questions to remove misdemeanor infractions from consideration and limiting felony charges and juvenile criminal infractions to only those involving violent or assaultive behavior, weapon possession, property destruction or sexually related offenses.”
According to Fitzgerald, the University began asking applicants about “criminal or conduct issues” in 1999. He said while criminal background is one factor in a student’s application, the holistic application process makes it so that a student is not immediately disqualified from admission if they check the box saying they have a criminal history.
“In fact, crime and conduct responses are not viewable by the initial application reviews so evaluators will not have access to the responses as they assess the candidate for admission,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s only once an application is evaluated and receives a competitive admissions rating for consideration that the crime and conduct are reviewed by separate admissions team members who did not complete the initial application review.”
In a tweet, Regent Jordan Acker (D) praised the University for their decision and said the box will instead only ask students about charges in which the University has “an interest.” Acker said requiring a student to disclose their past convictions often leads to an inequitable and discriminatory application process.
“We also know how that question has racially disparate impacts — especially when we are talking about drug related felonies or misdemeanors,” Acker wrote. “I’m proud to have worked on this issue, and I’m glad to have worked to make our University just a little bit better. I know we have more work to do, but we should absolutely celebrate progress. This definitely is that.”
Eli Savit, the Democratic candidate for Washtenaw County prosecutor who is running unopposed in November, responded to Acker’s tweet, commending the change. He said he hopes this new policy will allow those with misdemeanor charges to apply to the University.
“It was long overdue,” Savit said. “What we know is that requiring people to disclose criminal convictions when they’re seeking to pursue higher education often dissuades people from applying in the first place and it can result in them being denied admission to continue their education.”
The campaign to stop requiring students to report these convictions — often known as “ban the box” — became even more vocal in 2019 when the University implemented a policy requiring faculty and staff to disclose their convictions within a week of the charge. The policy states that faculty and staff who do not report these convictions could face serious consequences and possibly have their employment terminated.
Oli Naimi, who recently graduated from LSA and worked with the Prison Creative Arts Project, said requiring faculty and staff members to disclose their criminal records could still impact student employees and alienate those students who must work to afford a University education.
“It doesn’t matter if students had to check a box when they originally applied if the felony disclosure policy for workers is still in place,” Naimi said.
In response to this policy, the University’s Carceral State Project, a project that researches mass incarceration across the country, released a statement in February 2019 calling on the University to reverse it. The letter also outlined other ways in which they believed the administration discriminates against students, faculty and staff with criminal records.
Nora Krinitsky, director of the Carceral State Project and lecturer in the Residential College, was part of the group of faculty, students and staff that helped draft this statement. Krinitsky said continuing to ask about students’ past convictions, even for a violent or sexual crime, still allows the University to discriminate against students and possibly bar those who come from underrepresented communities from attending.
“I have some concerns and reservations, especially, in his words, (that) the applications will continue to ask questions about convictions for violent crimes,” Krinitsky said. “He calls these ‘crimes where the University has an interest,’ which I think is a meaningless phrase and there is no indication that racism or structural inequality have any less of an effect on convictions for violent crimes than they do for any other kind of crime.”
Krinistky said having questions about a student’s criminal record on a college application is antithetical to the University’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
“If the University really lived the stated DEI values that it espouses at every turn, it would consider criminal-legal system contact to be a true asset to our community and would actively seek to recruit students and employees who have those experiences,” Krinitsky said.
Daily News Editor Liat Weinstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org