From The Daily: Our university’s hypocrisy on crime, safety and inclusion

Monday, April 22, 2019 - 5:02pm

On Feb. 1, the University of Michigan made effective a new policy requiring faculty, staff, student employees, volunteers and visiting scholars to disclose if they are charged with or convicted of a felony. Immediately, there was strong criticism across campus, drawing complaints of the potential impact this will have on members of the University community. Moreover, upon review, the policy is vague and unclear. In response, the Michigan Daily Editorial Board pushed for more transparency on the policy, how it works and its impacts on specific communities. As the semester has progressed, we are becoming increasingly apprehensive of the University’s felony disclosure policy, especially considering the University’s purported goals to promote inclusion on campus.     

The initiatives and projects set out in the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion plan are meant to be deeply intertwined with the University’s mission of providing an excellent public education for the public good. It is, consequently, an ambitious undertaking, encompassing 49 plans developed by school, college and campus units. Any provision made by the plan is considered to be not only an aspect of the DEI plan itself, but as essential to the University’s goal of creating a more welcoming campus where all students have an opportunity to thrive. Indeed, the DEI plan is consistently championed as a concrete example of the University’s genuine interest in promoting an inclusive campus. In the 2018 Strategic Plan Progress Report, University President Mark Schlissel writes, “Our Strategic Plan remains a pledge that will guide our focus as we work to live up to our most cherished ideals.”

While we applaud the DEI plan in its mission, we also find that University support of policies such as the felony disclosure policy call these “cherished ideals” into question. The felony disclosure policy requires employees to disclose any felony charges and convictions after Feb. 1, 2019, within a week of the charge or conviction, and was created for the purpose of maintaining campus safety. However, in the wake of its announcement, many groups have found fault in the plan’s lack of transparency, potential violation of due process and contradiction with DEI. We as an Editorial Board believe this policy is underdeveloped and misinformed, and its impact becomes the reverse of its intention: It hurts and isolates communities at our university.

The felony disclosure policy undermines the University’s DEI initiative by ignoring how the criminal justice system in Michigan disproportionately affects people of color. In Michigan alone, for example, Black people are overrepresented in prisons, accounting for 49 percent of the incarcerated population, but only 14 percent of the state population. This picture of over-criminalization is true nationwide as well, where people of color are more likely than their white counterparts to enter the criminal justice system. One of the main drivers of this disparity in the racial makeup of prisons is racial bias, and therefore is necessarily a concern for advocates of diversity, equity and inclusion.

The fear POC communities feel in regard to the felony disclosure policy is a detrimental effect of the policy and indicative of its contradictory nature. The obvious disparities between white and POC groups in regard to their experiences with the criminal justice system has even proven itself on our campus in recent years. During the 2017 home football game between Michigan and Michigan State, Black and Latino fraternities reported receiving several citations and arrests, coupled with aggressive tactics from the Ann Arbor Police Department, while the predominantly white Interfraternity Council fraternities reported no police presence or citations. This, along with other campus events, added to existing mistrust between police and POC, and a call for greater communication between police and POC organizations. The felony disclosure policy, while impacting all University students and faculty, has a disproportionate effect on minority groups who already face adverse policing and treatment in the criminal justice system. The implications of this are both tangible and social, from actually preventing minorities from being employed at the University to creating a campus atmosphere that pegs POC members as “other.” If the felony disclosure policy is meant to promote a feeling of safety, it fails in its attack on these marginalized communities.

While legislation such as ban-the-box laws attempts to combat racial discrimination, the felony disclosure policy does the opposite, actively contradicting DEI. In September 2018, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a ban-the-box law to remove the question, “Have you been convicted of a felony?” from state job applications. In doing so, a huge barrier to employment and societal inclusion was lifted for those entangled in the criminal justice system. With the felony disclosure policy, the University is moving in the opposite direction, making it harder for groups disproportionately targeted by over-criminalization to obtain employment.

The University cannot justifiably say it supports diversity, equity and inclusion while simultaneously promoting discriminatory policies such as felony disclosure. Since the University has already heard strong critique from voices on this campus — including the ACLU, the Carceral State Project and numerous professors and alumni — continuing to uphold the policy represents strategic ignorance. This is the same type of strategic ignorance that haunts debates of University inaction on issues like carbon neutrality, potentially emerging as a harmful pattern of behavior where the ideals that the University holds up to the community are diametrically opposed to the policies it actually supports.

While the felony disclosure policy's presumed goal is to make our campus safer, especially in the wake of tumultuous events such as the School of Music, Theatre & Dance sexual assault allegations and the false shooter alarm, it lacks the structure and logic to actually carry out this mission. The policy should theoretically filter out University students or employees that could be a threat to campus or student safety. But the policy is fulfilled by entering information into a simple online form, followed by a subsequent review process carried out by the University’s Human Resources department, making it a subjective and unclear process that gives employees little clarity about how their information will be evaluated.

Heather Ann Thompson, a professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, affirms this idea that the policy actually holds no true impact: “The irony here is that these policies cause harm and do not make the public safe,” Thompson said. “Frankly, some of the evidence says when you criminalize people and you make them feel fearful of reporting, then in fact you increase danger.” The halfhearted effort of this policy does not ensure student safety as it lacks an objective, structured procedure, and could actually have adverse effects.

Additionally, in the wake of the sexual assault allegations, it is clear that the University could have better focused its attention on creating helpful policies or programs for survivors of sexual misconduct on campus, rather than the overarching felony disclosure policy. Survivors not only have to deal with the emotional and physical trauma following their assault, but also an intricate and often unpromising legal process in order to get justice or to finally feel safe on campus. In the fall, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals required that universities allow for cross-examinations of the accuser in sexual misconduct cases. This has caused deep concern in the community, as the process of cross-examination, often times carried out by the accused, can unnecessarily distress the survivor. We believe that the University should direct its resources and energy toward protecting these survivors, by implementing a thorough policy that has clear and direct impact. Not all felonies are sexual assault charges, of course, and the policy is not explicitly meant to address those findings. But we do believe that uplifting and supporting sexual assault survivors is a huge part of promoting campus safety and is especially relevant now. The felony disclosure policy does little to help this group of students feel safe.

Another flaw we find with the new felony disclosure policy is that it is implemented on the University’s other campuses — Flint and Dearborn — while other important programs like DEI are not. The University has received criticism recently for how it treats its other campuses, with campaigns such as One University pushing for more resources and funding to be distributed evenly between the campuses. Along these lines, it has remained unclear why the new felony disclosure policy would extend to the other campuses and DEI would not. U-M Flint and U-M Dearborn communities have a higher relative percentage of students of color than Ann Arbor, with both campuses’ POC populations above 20 percent, and smaller overall undergraduate population, so the extension of the federal disclosure policy seems suspect, as we have previously pointed out how this policy disproportionally affects these groups. Furthermore, programs such as DEI could be beneficial to these communities, but have failed to be implemented.

Flint and Dearborn have to deal with the problems of discrimination the implementation of the felony disclosure policy will bring. Yet despite this, they will not reap any benefits of the DEI plans the University has set up in Ann Arbor. Their inclusion in the plan would be a powerful statement as it would show that the University considers and cares for the needs of all U-M students, not just the ones on the Ann Arbor campus. In order to take into account the differences between the campuses, the plan should be tweaked to best fit the unique circumstances of each in order to maximize the benefits to students and staff.

To be fair, there is still much progress to be made on Ann Arbor’s campus, but that does not mean the others should be left out. Their inclusion is of paramount importance. The felony disclosure policy proposed by the administration goes against the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion and is only making the differences between campuses larger.

Despite the hypocrisy that the University has shown with regards to crime and safety, the University has funded many organizations on campus that have a positive impact on criminalized communities. We encourage the University to allocate more funds, resources and support to these types of programs because unlike the felony disclosure policy, they support the core goals of DEI and can positively impact incarcerated communities. One of these programs is the Prison Creative Arts Project. PCAP, which is run through the LSA Residential College, works to bring those affected by the justice system and the University community together through art. This program is extensive: It includes courses, volunteer workshops in correctional facilities and currently houses one of the largest exhibitions of prison art in the carceral system. PCAP has continued to grow, which shows people see value in the program. The University should provide more support to PCAP through increased funding, which reflects the core values of the DEI plan.

The University also provides an opportunity for students to interact with the prison system through Project Community, which is a program run through the Sociology Department. In addition to criminal justice, Project Community offers classes in various fields, including public health and education. Similar to PCAP, the criminal justice section of Project Community allows students to lead creative writing workshops that work to reinforce the creativity of incarcerated communities. There are two sociology classes offered to students through this program another example of a positive program the University supports.

There is also the lauded work of various faculty members, such as the Carceral State Project. Launched in 2016 by Thompson, the project works with professors across disciplines, community activists and students to research, document and teach about the systems of criminalization and containment widespread in the United States. It has reached people on campus through events held throughout the year and has expanded its efforts to document the unrelenting punitive system through Documenting Criminalization and Confinement, an archival initiative dedicated to uplifting the voices impacted by this arcane system. These efforts demonstrate the tenacity of students and faculty across campus who have dedicated much of their academic careers to solving a broken system.

The University’s felony disclosure policy, along with the lingering issues of diversity and inclusion, represent the seemingly insurmountable challenges of changing our institutions. The overarching hypocrisy of a felony disclosure policy in the context of the University’s efforts to increase diversity and campus safety exacerbates mistrust between students and faculty and the administration. Yet, we need only look beyond our campus to see these issues enumerated every day in public discourse. As a nation, we are reckoning with a criminal justice system built to ensnare minorities and marginalized groups. In our microcosm, we can lead by example and improve our institutions so they truly enhance diversity and shield communities from harmful policies. Yet, with the implementation of something so disruptive, it feels as though the “adults” in the room are no longer paying attention to the conversation.