“Have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor, felony, or other crime?”

This question, inconspicuously added to the Common Application in 2006, has served as the latest point of conflict between universities who ask the question and students who advocate against it. The Admissions Opportunity Campaign (AOC), a coalition of a variety of Princeton University campus organizations and led by Princeton’s Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR), is campaigning for Princeton to elect “to not receive data from the question” on both the Common Application and Universal College Application. A reprisal of an earlier 2014 campaign, the coalition believes that the question “collects flawed information produced by a discriminatory system.” The campaign is at the center of a broader national debate surrounding mass incarceration and the societal role of elite universities. This poses the question of how committed self-styled progressive institutions are to decarceration and interrogates the tenuous relationship between universities’ ideals and applicants’ interactions with an often-inequitable criminal justice system.

Advocates of removing the question typically center their argument around the inequity of the criminal justice system. They point to the disproportionately high conviction rates for people of color, claiming that conviction history does not serve as an accurate judgement of character. According to the AOC proposal, collection of such information “contributes to the underrepresentation of students with conviction histories, who are disproportionately from low income and minority backgrounds.” Such an analysis is not novel but comes amid emerging studies claiming the question causes a chilling effect to potential applicants and prevents a negligible risk to campus safety. Judith Scott-Clayton, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has noted the widespread use of such a question most disproportionately impacts men of color. The largest deterrent for them is not explicit rejection but what she terms “application attrition,” which refers to the “students that quit or never even begin an application because they do not want to reveal their criminal history.”  

The criminal history question exposes tensions at the core of the University’s mission. On one hand, Princeton has a stated commitment to diversity, service, and social mobility – in other words, a commitment to progressive values. “If we’re going to be excellent, we’re going to need to bring in talent from all backgrounds,” said President Eisgruber in a Washington Post story on Princeton University. Eisgruber clearly takes pride in the institution’s generous financial aid packages, its long history of service, and Princeton’s self-proclaimed commitment to diversity. On the other hand, Princeton is an institution deeply embedded with conservatism: a deference to the status quo, a resistance to social change, and a concern with optics. The controversy over renaming the Woodrow Wilson School, the delay of student Honor Code reform, and rejection of the previous AOC campaign point to a common theme: there is nominal support of progressive causes with broad student support, and bureaucratic foot-dragging when such proposals have the potential to change the character of the University. This is not a personal indictment of President Eisgruber, or of Dean of Admission Janet Lavin Rapelye—to take it as one misses the point. Princeton’s contradiction is not one of individual administrators’ politics, but the impossibility of maintaining both a progressive image while also pursuing a rigorous defense of the status quo and tradition.

Such a dynamic was evident in the AOC campaign back in 2014. Although the proposal to “Ban the Box” garnered more than 1,000 signatures by May 7th, 2014, the University decided to keep its current policy. Members of the former SPEAR campaign characterized President Eisgruber as being sympathetic to the analysis of student advocates during a “teach-in,” but still believed that criminal history told administrators something significant about the applicant’s moral character. Also noted, however, was that Dean Rapelye was more concerned with what peer institutions were doing, with the idea that Princeton may potentially be falling behind.

What then is the hope for current advocates, if the previous incarnation of the campaign failed? Princeton requires broad campus support for petitions to demonstrate continued, broad-based student support for reform. Instead of petering out, the issue has gained renewed vigor nationwide. Louisiana’s governor, in June of 2017, prohibited “state higher-education institutions from inquiring about a potential student’s criminal history during the application process.” The State University of New York eliminated it for their applicants for 2018.  “About 50 of the Common App’s 700 members” already suppress criminal history from their applicants. Perhaps even more important is that the national attitude, especially on the left, has shifted dramatically with regard to mass incarceration. The two things that get most people involved in this issue,” Amanda Eisenhour ‘21, chair of SPEAR’s Post-Incarceration Committee, tells me, “are first, reading the New Jim Crow or watching 13th.”  Eisenhour says this tongue in cheek, but she’s not wrong.  Liberals are more aware of mass incarceration and the increasing activism surrounding it.  The question confronting universities mirrors the one now poised to democratic nominees, who “are running as far away as possible from the criminal-justice policies of the 1990s Democrats,” says Vann R. Newkirk II. If it is true, as Scott-Clayton notes that, “nearly one in three Americans have been arrested at least once by the age of 23,” particularly disadvantaged groups such as “young men of color”, then universities may be sacrificing broader societal well-being for nebulous campus safety concerns. It’s worth questioning if an institution potentially excluding a large part of the American population is truly “in the nation’s service,” or in the service of perpetuating aristocracy.

Two high profile cases have similarly complicated the debate: those of Michelle Jones and Yusuf Dahl. An explosive profile on Jones, a PhD candidate in history accepted to Harvard who had been convicted more than two decades before for the murder of her son, appeared in the New York Times in September. She was highly recruited by several doctoral programs for the work she conducted while incarcerated in Indiana. Yet, her prior crimes posed a concern to Harvard administrators and professors, leading to her subsequent rejection. John Stauffer, an American studies professor, told the Times, “we knew that anyone could just punch her crime into Google, and Fox News would probably say that P.C. liberal Harvard gave 200 grand of funding to a child murderer, who also happened to be a minority. I mean, c’mon.” Stauffer’s comment illustrates the dilemma facing universities, who must balance public image with what they’d like to see as meritocracy in admissions. Elizabeth Hinton, a historian who supported Ms. Jones, begged the question,“how much… we really believe in the possibility of human redemption?” In the case of Yusuf Dahl, Princeton would seem to answer that we do, but only selectively. Displayed across the front page of the Princeton news section, “From Prison to Princeton,” the story of Mr. Dahl is certainly a laudable one. Convicted of possession with intent to distribute cocaine during the drug war, Mr. Dahl was able to overcome his circumstances and earn his MPA from the Woodrow Wilson School. Of course, Princeton posted the story with little self-awareness – the Graduate College does not ask about applicants’ criminal histories – and Mr. Dahl may not have been offered the same opportunity at the undergraduate level. Similarly, there is no evidence to indicate the Graduate School has suffered a notably higher level of crime without the question, nor has crime decreased significantly on Princeton’s campus since 2006, when it was implemented.

However, Mr. Dahl’s story is unlikely to be the model for resolving the problem that activists have raised. Only letting in those whose sentences were unjust, those of victimless crimes, is not at the heart of the problem. Ta-Nehisi Coates notes that “thinking you can decarcerate (a word!) by releasing a bunch of 20-year-old potheads who’ve never hurt anybody is wrong. Thinking we can decarcerate (word!) without grappling with the impulse toward vengeance is wrong.” The question is how much stock do we put into a criminal justice system that we think convicts, often unfairly, far too many people? What accurate moral judgements can we infer about applicants who have gone through the system? Do we retain a sense of purpose to society and a radical belief in the capacity for an individual’s redemption? The AOC presented to the Committee on Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid on February 15th. We will see if such a belief exists at Princeton.

Do you enjoy reading the Nass?

Please consider donating a small amount to help support independent journalism at Princeton and whitelist our site.