On Tuesday, student organizations hosted the “Ban the Box” town hall to encourage student discussion and awareness about the University’s inquiry into applicants’ conviction history in the undergraduate application process.
Academics Chair of Undergraduate Student Government Olivia Ott ’20 first gave a background presentation that explained the mission and rationale for the campaign. According to Ott, on both the Common Application and the Universal College Application, students are asked to answer: “Have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor or felony?” If the student’s conviction has been “expunged, sealed, annulled, pardoned, destroyed, erased, impounded, or otherwise required by law or ordered by a court to be kept confidential,” the student does not have to answer “yes.”
According to Alice Mar-Abe ’18, one of the key organizers of the event, the “Ban the Box” movement began in 2014, and the proposal for the town hall meeting was presented to the Committee on Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid in February. Amanda Eisenhour ’21, another key organizer of the event, explained that the goal of the town hall was to create an open forum where students could engage in discourse and show administration that they care about this issue.
Although the box exists for the University’s undergraduate application, the University’s graduate program and the transfer admission process for fall 2018 reentry do not have the box.
“The box is not a metric of criminality,” said Micah Herskind ’19, a member of Students for Prison Education and Reform. “It is a proxy for asking ‘Are you a person of color? Are you poor?’”
For instance, one student said that her family member expunged his misdemeanor record by paying legal fees because of her family’s privilege. His friends that were convicted of similar misdemeanors were unable to expunge their records due to their inability to pay the fees.
The precedent to remove the box has already been established in multiple institutions nationwide. Ott said that over 50 schools have removed the question, including the University of California system, the State University of New York system, Louisiana public universities, and Maryland public universities.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Education called on universities to reconsider the box in 2016, and the American Association of Colleges and Universities called on its members to reconsider these questions in May, Ott said. No Ivy League universities have yet banned the box. New Jersey job applications have banned the box by law.
Ott pointed out that banning the box would be in line with a University statement on diversity and inclusion that states, “Only by including people with a broad range of experiences and perspectives are we able to realize our potential.”
Mar-Abe acknowledged that University’s administration is “concerned about perception,” issues that include parents’ potential worries about student safety. In regard to one of the more popular counter-arguments — the threat that banning the box poses to public safety — Ott said that there is no statistically significant difference in crime rates for schools with and without the box, and about 97 percent of students who commit misconduct on campuses have no prior criminal record.
After the presentation, the approximately 100 students present were then asked to break into small groups to discuss what the University’s policy regarding conviction history should be on its undergraduate application. The floor was then opened to public comment.
One student added, that regarding public safety, in addition to the statistics that Ott presented, if the University cared about sexual assault on campus, the University would shut down the eating clubs.
Maya Silverberg ’21 said that the University’s rate of sexual misconduct in the most recent reporting period, 2014–2017, was overwhelmingly higher than that of the entire UC system, which has banned the box, in its most recent reporting period (2013–2016), which she said disproves the claim that the question about conviction history on the undergraduate application makes the campus safer.
Other students mentioned how receiving access to education is the biggest prevention for recidivism and how the box does not make the University more selective but more unfair. The box’s connection to the racist criminal justice system was also referenced multiple times.
“Racism is very self-evident in [the U.S.] criminal justice system,” Leopoldo Solis ’21 said in the public comment section. “[There is a] problem thinking that you can put someone in jail and punish them even after they leave — that they will never be worthy.”
Miranda Bolef ’19, a SPEAR member, said that since the University has national prestige, its actions matter.
“We can choose to be a leader or an enabler of discrimination,” Bolef said.
Ott, Mar-Abe, and Eisenhour agreed that the town hall was a success, and all said they were surprised with the student turnout. The campaign, however, was not without obstacles.
“One of the biggest difficulties is knowing where to push and when [because] the levers of power of this institution are obscure,” Mar-Abe explained.
Eisenhour added that encouraging students to come out was also challenging, since activism is not a large part of University culture.
“There is also no obvious path to change,” Mar-Abe said. “You don’t know where to start, and you don’t want to waste people’s energy.”
Mar-Abe said that she initially thought that the Board of Trustees would be the “better way to go” to galvanize momentum for the movement, but the trustees later revealed to her that they do not have power in that regard.
Mar-Abe and Eisenhour agreed that the next step after the town hall depends on what the Committee on Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid does. Eisenhour added that she hopes to get a statement sponsored by the Undergraduate Student Government in support of the campaign, since the USG has thus far decided to remain neutral on the matter. In addition, Ott said that the campaign hopes to continue to show administration that this is an important student issue. Eisenhour hopes to see more events like this in the fall.
Mar-Abe also explained that she does not want this movement to be “a passing thing,” since every year, the University is comprised of a slightly different student body.
“I don’t think admissions should think about this as such a contentious issue,” Mar-Abe said. “I don’t think it’s controversial at all. All of us [students] think it is a pretty logical step.”
Eisenhour, Michaela Daniel ’21; Debora Darabi ’18, Mar-Abe and Anne McDonough ’18 from SPEAR; Tylor-Maria Johnson ’19 and William Pugh ’20 from the Black Student Union; KiKi Gilbert ’21 from the Princeton Hidden Minority Council; Justin Wittekind ’21 from the American Whig-Cliosophic Society; and Kyle Berlin ’18 were the key organizers of the event.
Co-sponsors for the event included SPEAR, Muslim Advocates for Social Justice and Individual Dignity, USG, Princeton Latinos & Amigos, Whig-Clio, BSU, Princeton Hidden Minority Council, Princeton Reentry and Employment Program, and Black Organization for Leadership Development.
The town hall was held on Tuesday, May 8, at 7 p.m. in the Whig Senate Chamber.