UW System considering asking prospective students about criminal history
MADISON -- With growing concerns about campus safety, and news last month that a student convicted of torching black churches was trying to start a white nationalist group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the UW System is reviewing a pract...
MADISON - With growing concerns about campus safety, and news last month that a student convicted of torching black churches was trying to start a white nationalist group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the UW System is reviewing a practice of not asking prospective students if they have a criminal history.
The review comes amid protests at UW-Madison over the student who was attempting to start a white nationalist group on campus, and the revelation that he was convicted of two felony hate crimes in 2005.
The student, Daniel Dropik, was convicted of setting fires at two churches in predominantly black neighborhoods of Milwaukee and Lansing, Mich., and was sentenced to five years in federal prison.
Because UW campuses have a longtime practice of not asking about or considering a student applicant's criminal history, UW-Madison did not know about Dropik's criminal history when the 33-year-old was admitted to the university.
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said last month that she would ask the UW System and the Board of Regents to review the admissions practice, which she said was intended to ensure students who have made mistakes, but paid their debt to society, are not prevented from accessing education.
"I myself think it's untenable for me to not know that I have someone in the campus community who has a past felony background. I think that would be disturbing to a good number of my parents," the chancellor told reporters outside a Board of Regents meeting on campus Thursday, where the issue was not discussed.
At the same, Blank said, "I want to be very clear that I do not think a criminal background should be a bar for admissions. The question is what information do you have and when do you use it in the admissions process."
Most schools know whether they have students with felony convictions, Blank told reporters.
Some admit students without considering criminal background, but ask applicants to reveal if they have a criminal history to determine whether restrictions need to be placed on them, Blank said.
UW-Madison six months ago began accepting the Common Application for admissions, which allows prospective students to apply to multiple schools around the country through one application. Blank reported during the regents meeting Thursday that applications for admission are up 8 percent for the fall 2017 freshman class, though the enrollment yield is hard to predict because the Common App allows prospective students to cast a wide net.
The Common App does ask prospective students whether they have a criminal history. UW-Madison also has its own admissions application that does not ask the question.
UW System President Ray Cross sent an email to chancellors late Thursday, saying the UW System will research policies and practices at other Midwest, Big 10, and national colleges and universities. He asked provosts and chancellors to weigh in, and said he hoped to deliver recommendations to the Board of Regents in time for the 2018-'19 admissions cycle.
The UW System does not have a policy prohibiting campuses from asking prospective students if they have a criminal history, but it has been longtime practice systemwide not to ask such questions in the admissions process, UW System spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said Thursday.
A safe environment for learning is a primary concern for students and families, Cross said.
"With that in mind, any consideration of criminal history during our admissions process requires the delicate balancing of three of our core principles: to ensure student, faculty, and staff safety, to promote the healthy and free exchange of ideas, even contentious ones, and to provide the broadest possible access to public education."
Blank said a review of the admissions practice is appropriate, given that it has been in place "for many years" and concern about campus safety is more acute now than 10 years ago.