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CAUCE Sent: 6/17/2013 12:54 PM To: Faculty Issues and Concerns Subject: [AAUP] Criminal background checks and Change.org Dear Colleagues, Some of you may have received a petition from Change.Org about how the University of Washington is instituting questions about criminal background on our admission applications and urging people to sign on in opposition to this. While bracketed with reputable research and legitimate concerns, the petition is misleading. Many read it to say we will be conducting universal background checks to screen out students. This is not true, and I fear that it may scare off worthy applicants. I have written directly to the (anonymous) petition organizers through Change.Org, but they have elected not to allow me to respond, whether to correct erroneous information or to simply provide those interested my e-mail to respond to directly. Change-Org does not take responsibility for the veracity of petitions – they are merely a “platform” – and they leave it up to organizers to post (or not) responses from those targeted by petitions. Indeed, it’s rather ironic that just last year, after the Seattle Times published a story noting that we had two Level Three sex offenders on campus (both convicted of child abuse) there was a petition on Change.Org urging us to save admission slots for victims of child abuse, not perpetrators. Sometimes I fear we’re in a post-dialogue, post-discourse world. But regardless, I did want to let folks know what we are (and are not) doing and a bit of context for how we got here and how we’ll move forward. We are not conducting universal background checks on our students as suggested-- we are putting two questions on our application about criminal background – the two questions ask about 1) criminal histories at the felony level, and 2) Whether they are classified as sex offenders who are required to register as such (generally level 3, which typically are those who have offended multiple times, whose offenses have been especially violent or show no remorse and are considered at high risk for re-offending). Unlike other colleges in our state – most notable Western Washington which we spoke to in our work, we have explicitly not included questions about drug-related crimes or misdemeanors where there are the largest racial disparities. It is also worth noting that immediately after these two questions, we leave space for applicants who answered yes to one or both questions, to tell us why we should not consider them a threat to campus safety at this time. In this way we want to immediately signal that answering yes does not, in and of itself, disqualify them for admission. There was a robust debate about this issue, at least on the Seattle campus, and it was covered in the UW Daily. We also worked closely with faculty and student governance, including faculty and students of color and sought, and received, their input at every step. I spoke more than once about this with the OMAD Student Advisory Board, as well as with ASUW Governance, and with the Faculty Senate Faculty Committee on Academic
Standards (FCAS) subcommittee on admissions and graduations that reported back to FCAS . All of them endorsed the narrow set of questions we are asking. (GPSS was less involved, but a number of our graduate programs already are required by their accreditation board to ask an even broader set of questions). Again, It is also important to note that having such a background does not necessarily mean we will not admit a student. (For example, these questions are asked for in law school admissions - yet, we admitted a student in law this year who served time for robbery and theft). Ironically perhaps, part of what got this going was the real fear/trauma experienced by a faculty member, with a history of victimization (sadly not uncommon) when s/he had to, as is required by law, hand out a picture and statement to students in her class about another student who was a level 3 sex offender. After this incident, and disclosure that we had two level 3 sex offenders on campus last year, and a report in the papers about it, we had several minority (and other) parents threaten to pull their kids out of the UW unless we “fixed” things. Especially compelling was one parent's plea that he had sacrificed so much to keep his child out of harm's way and gotten him from a rough neighborhood into a top university only to have him in class sitting next to a level 3 sex offender we knew nothing about. What was frustrating and upsetting to me about this situation, was not being able to clearly respond -- this person (eg the ex-offender) has paid for his crimes, we have confidence s/he is working to turn their life around, and despite this classification we do not believe s/he poses a risk to our campus. We owe him a second chance. I could not say this, because we first heard about his background when we had to, by law, inform others in his classes or work groups and even screen him/her out of classes that included minors. If I had known this at the time of application, and we had made an informed decision to let him/her in after further conversation, I could have more readily stood up for why s/he was at the UW. (And, yes s/he dropped out shortly thereafter. Both of them did). The narrow construction of our questions -- we do not ask about misdeamnors, or non-violent felonies, or even low level sexual offenses - makes it clear we are not looking to screen out youth who grew up in tough environments (or not) and made some mistakes along the way. We focus on especially violent crimes, and even then, will welcome those who have committed such crimes but are committed to change. I know this can and does happen, and I committed to keeping the UW as place where such transformation takes place. I have had extremely good experiences working with students who had made criminal-level mistakes in their past. A recent student/mentee of mine, Brian Stodsgill, now a master’s level youth counselor, published his book just last month, about how getting his undergraduate degree at the UW turned his life around. Called The Boy with a Gun: From Incarceration to Higher Education, it tells a story of how he, among other achievements, was a Mary Gates Scholar. (seehttp://www.amazon.com/The-Boy-With-Gunebook/dp/B00D3UV7UQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1370386234&sr=81&keywords=the+Boy+with+the+Gun). He lists me in the book’s credits and we continue to be in good touch.
I will be supervising how this gets carried out personally just as I was personally involved in crafting the question. And I will be working side by side with students and faculty in doing so. We continue to study best practices on how to best evaluate the information we do received on these questions. Our plan is to make the initial accept/decline/wait-list decision without taking this information into account then having a special group/panel evaluate the applications of those accepted or wait-listed that did reply yes to this question. Based on our conversations with schools who ask much broader questions, there will not be many applications who fall into this category, but we want to make sure they are handled well. I have heard from faculty at Bothell they have not felt well informed about what we are doing, and hope to be meeting with those most interested this summer. I am happy to meet with other faculty or student groups that are interested as well, and we are hoping to have a panel discussion on campus to talk specifically about juvenile criminal histories. Unlike the petition organizers who seem to have little interest in a conversation – I welcome conversation and debate. I especially welcome any and all opportunities to make it very clear that what has kept me at the UW for almost 30 years now is that we are a place that transforms lives for the better and that empowers people to fulfill their highest aspirations. That’s what these last few days of graduations were all about. To do this we can and should both create and nurture an environment for our students, and faculty, and staff that feels safe AND welcome those students who are academically qualified, have made mistakes, but are committed to correcting them. This is what the additions on our application seeks to do. I can assure you that as we move forward we will be evaluating the effect of these changes on the diversity of our application pool (we have been assured that it did not affect the application pool for WWU, which asks much broader questions), and reporting back on the outcomes of our decisions, on a yearly basis. Whether you think this is a good thing or not, if you are asked about it, please do let people know our process what thoughtful, deliberative, and inclusive of diverse input. And, that as we move forward, I can and do invite continued dialogue. In fact, when I have been able to find the e-mail of a petition signer (the e-mails that come from change.org do not contain a usable e-mail for the signatory), I have been responding. Thanks for your patience. I am presently on family leave, doing some caregiving (which is a very humbling experience), so am monitoring e-mail a little less closely.
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