On Monday, May 7, members of Wesleyan Students for Ending Mass Incarceration (SEMI) met with University President Michael Roth ’78, Associate Dean of Admission Cliff Thornton, and Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Nancy Hargrave Meislahn.
The meeting comes in the week after the University proposed new admissions policies to address the Common Application’s “box,” which requires students to tell the University if they have ever been convicted of a felony.
SEMI has been active on campus over the past school year, circulating a petition to garner support among students and faculty and recently hosting a public demonstration during WesFest in their continued attempts to ban the box. The WesFest rally evolved into a conversation with Roth, who agreed to meet with organizers and hear their suggestions in a follow-up discussion on April 23. After this meeting, he sent SEMI organizers the latest draft of a potential new question for applicants.
Roth perceives the updated version as close to an alternative that will still allow the Office of Admission to evaluate applicants’ histories of violent behavior by asking about disciplinary and criminal history.
“Rewording the question is not banning the box,” SEMI tweeted upon receiving Roth’s email. “President Roth’s solution is unacceptable #BantheBox #DontExpandtheBox.”
On Monday, Meislahn discussed more of the intricacies behind what and when applicant profile information is received during the admissions process. Some applicants get two or three reviewers before a final decision is made, and Meislahn and Thornton see a way to meet organizers’ requests for blind readings, which is an initial review of an applicant’s information that omits information pertaining to criminal histories.
“The really critical thing is the spotlight that you’ve put on this system in terms of not looking at any of the information until after we determine a student is academically competitive for admission,” Meislahn said. “What we’re all agreeing is to get rid of that first barrier. To be very transparent on the website and application to say that in and of itself, someone having been disciplined or a criminal history is not going to be a barrier to the admission process.”
Thornton took Meislahn’s framing down to the applicant experience.
“When that question has come up, it’s not an automatic disqualifier,” Thornton said. “Often what we really want to know is get information or some evidence on some form of personal growth as a result of that experience or in the case of a criminal conviction, then some sense of personal rehabilitation. That kind of information can be helpful. Just like when we get a letter of recommendation from a counselor when a student is involved in the community, all of these questions about character and personality are very important to the decision making process.”
Noah Kline ’21 spoke from SEMI’s perspective on these suggested policy updates.
“First, we want to acknowledge that the blind reading and subsequent analysis is a step forward, and we appreciate that,” Kline said.
However, organizers Kline, Fran Woodbridge ’20, and Lola Makombo ’20 cited applicant attrition as a concern. Applicant attrition refers to when a potential student begins the application process, but upon being asked of their criminal history, backs away altogether, assuming the University will throw away their application due to the stigmatization surrounding those who have been incarcerated.
“The problem is not only on the reader end but also on the stigmatizing,” Kline said. “By singling out criminality as this thing that needs to be addressed, you will have an application attrition effect because you will have people with criminal disciplinary histories who will feel like they are forced to give specific information.”
Woodbridge advocated for a broader inquiry into applicant criminal histories.
“A broad question can still lend itself to some specificity,” Woodbridge said. “We should work toward tailoring a question that focuses on more general experiences that are not within the confines of criminality. It’s about giving people the agency to tell their own story in their own words without the sort of stigmatizing thoughts that lends itself to punishing people who already have been punished. That’s our greatest concern.”
Meislahn and Thornton pushed back against this approach, each citing over two decades working in admissions.
“Vague questions lead to very vague answers, that’s my experience,” Meislahn said. “In some cases, the worst case is when we don’t understand the story. That there are gaps or that everything just doesn’t line up. Those are ones that we kind of move on [from].”
Kline responded with a perspective on how the box is complicit in the system of mass incarceration in the United States, and how removing this box is a step toward disentangling the University’s role in it.
“I don’t think that the Wesleyan application process is the place where you will make a dent in mass incarceration, and I appreciate you wanting to make such a dent,” Roth said. “I think we’re trying to figure out how to have an application that doesn’t discourage people who have been previously incarcerated but to get information from people about important aspects in their lives that include interactions with the criminal justice system or with disciplinary structures at their schools.”
At this point in the meeting, Roth had to leave. Before departing, he agreed that both SEMI and the administration should take separate attempts to construct their own versions of the question, with the intention of continuing discussion and collaboration in the future.
“I don’t want to lose sight that we have made progress—the blind reading, the language about encouraging people to apply,” Roth said.
Makombo asked Meislahn whether or not these recent updates to the question would be implemented in the 2018-19 admission cycle.
“What we’re talking about is making some of the questions we shared with you,” Meislahn replied. “The timeline for us to make those changes is within the next month in terms of when the Common App closes the door…. Even if this ends up feeling a little bit like a compromise from your perspective. I think it’s an enormous step forward. One of the things that keeps me doing this work is that every cycle is a new cycle. So we can try something next year and if it doesn’t get us the information we need, if you believe what we come up with is too stigmatizing, we can continue to work on it.”
“That’s all we came in this semester really wanting,” Makombo said. “So if at the end of the semester we have some change, but it’s open to revision, that’s ideal. We still hope that we can do as much as we can right now.”
This article has been amended to correct a misquote attributed to Thornton. The quote originally read that the question on college apps pertaining to applicant criminal histories was not an “automatic qualifier” and has since been updated to reflect the correction.
Kaye Dyja contributed to this reporting.
Emmet Teran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ETerannosaurus.