Past and present University community fears felony disclosure policy could deter applicants

Wednesday, March 20, 2019 - 3:01pm

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Design by Lizzy Rueppel

Jay Borchert earned both his master’s degree and PhD in sociology from the University of Michigan and worked as a graduate student instructor. He also spent seven years in prison before attending the University.

Borchert is a researcher and quantitative analyst at the Drug Policy Alliance and a co-founder of the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network.  

Borchert discussed the powerful symbolic nature of the policy which will require University employees to disclose felony allegations. Borchert examined how, while the felony disclosure policy itself does not impact admissions, the message the policy sends could prevent qualified people from applying. He also noted that the University is an influential school and it could lead other universities to implement similar policies.

“Aside from the people who decide not to even apply or decide that they are never going to make it into a school,” Borchert said. “And there are lots of people who just give up like that, there are going to be loads of people who are going to be affected by the symbolic nature of this change.”

Borchert graduated in 2016 and received many national and school-specific awards, including the Emerging Diversity Scholar award from the National Center for Institutional Diversity, the Mellon American Council of Learned Societies Dissertation Completion Fellowship Doctoral Candidate Research Grant, the Rackham Merit Fellowship and, most recently, a certificate of recognition for research mentoring.

Borchert said despite all he accomplished on campus, the new felony disclosure policy sends a message the University does not value those with a criminal background.  

“Considering how recently I earned my master’s and PhD at Michigan, and considering the number of awards and fellowships that I’ve won on campus and nationally and to the fact that ... I think I was somewhat of a model student and it’s almost as though they said ‘you can be a model student and it does not matter to us at the University of Michigan,” Borchert said. “We don’t value you.’”

Borchert said he loves the University and his time on campus allowed him to reach his full potential. But he also said this policy feels like a step backwards for him. He said he is disappointed in the University for implementing a protocol that casts aside certain communities.

Borchert said this policy seems uncharacteristic of the school he loves.

“I think it’s just really sad commentary in that we’re, instead of trying to lift people up and helping them become the best they can be, with this policy we’re closing the door on that possibility, on the possibility that their future may be bright,” Borchert said. “I think overall, the University of Michigan has tended to make policy decisions based in data and evidence and that represents what you would call a spirit of progress and transformation towards better rights for everyone. I think this goes against our history and I’d like to know why they made that decision.”

Kedra Ishop, vice provost for enrollment management and executive vice president for academic affairs, and Stephanie Riegle, executive director for enrollment operations and strategic initiatives, declined to comment on the motivations or specific events that inspired the creation of the policy despite saying they had been involved in the process of developing it.

Ishop discussed how, since 2014, the enrollment office has been making changes in an attempt to align their protocol with the Ban the Box campaign, which encourages employers and universities to remove the question of whether job applicants have been convicted of a crime from applications. While the University of Michigan application still requires applicants to disclose their criminal history, Ishop said the framing of the question is different. She said they continue to ask the question on applications and they created this policy for the safety of campus.

Ishop noted the felony disclosure policy will not lead to an employee getting fired in the same way the box will not lead to an applicant not getting in.

“Our responsibility is the safety of the campus, and that matters at both levels...” Ishop said. “You know, staff or faculty reporting doesn’t lead to, you know no one isn’t getting admitted, no one is losing their job … but campus safety and campus climate matter.”

The policy itself does not make it clear that no one will be fired. The policy states Human Resources will conduct an assessment based on “the nature and gravity of the offense, the timeliness and accuracy of the disclosure and the relevancy of the felony charge/conviction to the role(s) held at the university by the individual reporting.”

The policy says the self-disclosure of a felony charge or conviction does not mean action will be taken, but “a determination will be made regarding suitability for continued appointment or affiliation with the university, in collaboration with unit leadership as appropriate.”

LSA junior Hannah Agnew, president of the student executive committee for the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), said she did not feel the policy was specific enough in regards to the process of evaluating the disclosed charges and convictions.

“They haven’t made it at all clear what this process is like, how it is going to function,” Agnew said. “They sent out an email to campus saying that it would promote a safer campus community, but they didn’t tell us what the process would be like, what it would mean if you had a conviction.”

Ishop said she hopes the felony disclosure policy will not impact admissions and the enrollment office does not base its selection process on a criminal background. She said the University aims to include people from all backgrounds and communities.

“Our policies are set up to ensure that we have those opportunities for reentry and access,” Ishop said. “We have students on campus who have come from incarcerated and criminal backgrounds, I mean this process doesn’t keep them out. And, in fact, it is looking for ways to provide an opportunity for a student to be able to be here and be served by the resources that we have.”

Borchert discussed how when people get out of prison, they want to rebuild their lives. He thinks this actually makes them some of the most reliable people to have on campus. Furthermore, he said an education is one of the most important things for formerly incarcerated people on their journeys to changing their lives.

“The best thing you can do if you want to keep somebody from going back to jail is to allow that person to get an education,” Borchert said. “Because it has been shown that once one has an education, that with each passing year they are less and less likely to return to prison and I just know from my own experience that it can transform your life when you realize that you’ve not lost everything and you can rebuild your life.”

According to Borchert, including formerly incarcerated people on campus improves their lives, of course, but it also benefits the entire community. Bochert said some of his best memories involve teaching and mentoring others who had once been incarcerated to help them achieve their fullest potential in the same way the University helped him achieve his goals.

“I think that at Michigan I had many opportunities,” Borchert said. “But some of the best opportunities I had were to help some of my students achieve their goals and dreams and to become people they didn’t even know they had inside them. In reality, I think we all know that everybody has something to contribute and unless they really prove otherwise.”

University alum Eman Abdelhadi, now PhD candidate at the New York University department of sociology, was a student of Borchert’s. Abdelhadi said her experience at the University would not have been the same without Borcherts’s mentorship. She discussed how she was very stressed and overworked as an undergraduate and Borchert helped her realize her potential and apply to graduate school.

“I don’t think I would be where I am today if I didn’t have Jay as a mentor,” Abdelhadi said. “I mean, he was the most influential person when it came to taking that next step in my career. He was so helpful in terms of those applications. So I actually don’t know if I would have gotten into grad school, and so that would have changed everything.”

Abdelhadi said, in addition to the policy potentially deterring people from applying and the community losing out on learning from them, it also disproportionately targets people of color and of low socioeconomic status.

“As a sociologist, I can definitely tell you that it is overwhelmingly people of color, people of lower income backgrounds across racial groups and even queer folks that are more heavily policed,” Abdelhadi said. “So the idea that your interactions with the police system, which itself has shown over and over to be discriminatory, would then translate to your job opportunities.”

Agnew also discussed how the felony disclosure policy will impact minority populations regardless of its intent due to the nature of mass incarceration.

“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.”

Agnew agreed with Borchert and said the policy will deter people with criminal backgrounds from applying. She talked about how the symbolic nature of the policy indicates the formerly incarcerated students are not welcome in the University community.

“We believe that this policy creates an increased risk of these communities and individuals losing their education and employment,” Agnew said. “And not only does that risk of loss have very dire implications for those people here on campus, it also dissuades others from wanting to apply to this university because it is not an inclusive or equitable community and we’re not making them feel welcome.”

As a member of PCAP and someone who has worked closely with many people who have been and currently are incarcerated, Agnew said she has had the opportunity to learn from the former prisoners. She said it would be a great loss if other University students lost that opportunity because of this policy.

“It’s also very damaging because as students we have a lot to learn from these communities and people that are directly affected by the carceral state,” Agnew said. “It is so valuable for us as students to learn directly from them and hear their voices, yet this policy is targeting people like that and making them feel unwelcome on campus and making students miss out on very valuable and very important educational experiences.”

Borchert said it was a privilege to be able to attend the University and believes it is an incredible institution which produces long-lasting rewards. He discussed how the University’s academic and social setting allowed him to really succeed for the first time and become the best version of himself, someone who was not simply defined as a formerly incarcerated person.

“I’ve found that Michigan, every commitment that they made to me, they kept,” Borchert said. “And they, in fact, most of the times exceeded that commitment. And as a result, I think I really thrived. I wasn’t just a high achieving former prisoner graduate student, I ended up becoming a high achieving graduate student at Michigan. And it’s weird saying that. I think it’s important to note that, for me, it was a place I could literally thrive.”

 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Borchert worked at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and that he taught formerly incarcerated individuals at the University. While he did teach formerly incarcerated individuals, he did not do so at U-M. Both inaccuracies have been fixed.