U. to decide whether to amend language of conviction history question on supplemental application| May 5, 2019
The Committee on Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid (CUAFA) will recommend preserving the conviction history question on the University’s supplemental application but amending it in three significant ways, according to Dean of the College Jill Dolan in an exclusive interview with The Daily Princetonian.
The draft of the proposal will be presented at the meeting of the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) on Monday, May 6, and then voted on at CUAFA’s May 13 meeting. The final decision as to whether to approve or revise the committee’s recommendation will lie with President Christopher Eisgruber ’83.
Dolan said that CUAFA has been working all year on how to address the issue of the conviction history question.
“The signal we’ve gotten from the administration is that it’s important to maintain this question on the application, which many colleges and universities are doing in different ways,” she said.
Dolan said the CUAFA proposal will include changing “the language of the question, which has been very legalistic and potentially off-putting,” in order to clarify that admissions encourage people to fill it out because “it’s important for people to be honest about their past,” but that the information will not be discriminatory in terms of the review of their application.
If CUAFA’s recommendation is accepted, the supplement will include the “yes or no” question, “Have you ever been convicted?” If the applicant checks “yes,” they will be faced with the following instructions: “Please tell us what you were convicted of and describe in as much detail as you’d like the ways in which this experience has had an impact on your life,” according to an advance copy of the committee’s CPUC presentation obtained by the ‘Prince.’
“We’re asking, in a way, for a personal narrative about how it affected them, how hopefully they grew from it, what they understand about the world on the basis of it,” said Dolan. “It’s an opportunity for a kind of thinking that will help them demonstrate to us what the incident means to them and how they’ll carry it into their experiences at Princeton.”
Dolan added that in some ways this question is analogous to other essays that the application asks people to write, which are “an index to a person’s character, what they’re interested in, and their social commitments.”
According to Dolan, the new, “more human” phrasing acknowledges that conviction histories can be very complicated and gives people “as many words as they need to tell their story” and provide context.
“We’re trying to signal very clearly that this is about wanting to start a dialogue, as opposed to ending a dialogue, on the basis of answering that question,” she said.
CUAFA’s second recommendation will be to separate the misdemeanor question from the felony question, since, as Dolan noted, “obviously, there is a huge difference” between the two. Applicants will still have to report convictions of both types of offenses, with the “narrative box” options available for each.
The third and final recommendation CUAFA plans to put forth has to do with the admissions evaluation process, not the application itself.
Under the new process, in the first readings of the application, the answer to the conviction history question will be suppressed such that the first reader cannot see it. When the file moves forward to subsequent readings — “once they’re a serious applicant” — the question would be uncovered so the information can be a part of the holistic review.
When asked to speak to why the University sees the criminal history question as crucial to its holistic review, Dolan echoed Eisgruber’s past statements at CPUC meetings on the importance of safety.
“It’s about having the information that we need to make sure that our community is safe with one another, that we can build the kind of community among one another that we all value and respect,” she said. “Knowing about these things is an important part of doing that.”
Dolan concluded by noting this is only the first year that the University can devise its own language for the criminal history question since the Common App dropped the question in August 2018.
“We are able to revise it again if we find that it’s not getting the results that we want,” she continued. “In other words, now that this is under our institutional individual purview we can continue to tweak as necessary, which I think is a good thing. This is something that we can keep an eye on as we continue to form our student communities going forward.”
The announcement of the proposal comes after five years of campaigning by the campus group Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) for the University to eliminate the criminal history question from admissions applications.
At the CPUC meeting on Monday — where the proposal will be presented — SPEAR is planning a walk-out and teach-in, which they have advertised with flyers across campus and emails to residential college listservs that called students to engage in “direct action” by occupying and then walking out of the CPUC meeting.
“Show the administration that we are NOT backing down -- the question about conviction history on our application relies on a racist, classist system and further silences the voices of one of the most marginalized communities by deterring them from applying to our institution,” read an email sent by SPEAR president Amanda Eisenhour ’21.
This protest will serve as the book-end to a year of tension at CPUC meetings. In this academic year alone, “Ban the Box” has been raised at four CPUC meetings, as well as in multiple opinions columns published in the ‘Prince.’
At the previous CPUC meeting on March 25, the most contentious moment came when Micah Herskind ’19, a former president of SPEAR, pressed Eisgruber to state point-blank that “the criminal justice system is racist,” a statement Eisgruber declined to explicitly make.
When asked whether the University has changed the way in which they would approach that question since the last meeting, Dolan pointed to a difference between expressing personal views and expressing views on behalf of the University.
“While I understand Micah’s and other students’ desire for this to be answered clearly one way or the other, on some level, how any of us would answer that question as individuals, as faculty, I think would be different than what we feel our obligations are to an institutional community,” Dolan said.
Nevertheless, Dolan acknowledged that SPEAR student activism has been instrumental to developing her committee’s proposed changes and expressed her hopes of continuing dialogue with the campus group as her committee’s recommendation moves forward.
“SPEAR folks are some of the most passionate, articulate, committed students I’ve met on campus and I really admire not just their advocacy, but their analysis, which I find astute and research-based and very important,” she said.
Throughout the past two years, Dolan explained, CUAFA has had students from SPEAR come in and make presentations to the faculty and students on the committee. Dolan said that “student advocacy around these issues is taken very seriously at the administration level and at the level of my committee,” and these presentations have been incredibly meaningful to the committee’s evolving understanding of the issue.
“I hope that we continue to have those conversations with SPEAR,” she said. “I hope that they continue to present at the various committees that I chair and I hope -- I know -- that they will continue to raise this dialogue across the campus.”
Correction: In a previous version of this story, the article incorrectly claimed that the announcement comes after two years of campaigning by SPEAR to “Ban the Box.” The article has been updated to reflect that reality it was five years.