Abolish “The Box”: A Campaign for Racial and Economic Justice at New York University

Abolish “The Box”

We write as members of The Incarceration to Education Coalition (IEC). We write to share our campaign with you, to join in a national conversation about access to higher education and to debunk some of the myths surrounding higher education and criminal records.

Our campaign is targeted at NYU where many of us have attended school, teach and work. Of the over 500 colleges and universities that purchase and use the Common Application, NYU represents the largest applicants pool; the largest purchaser of the Common Application. We focus on NYU with the goal of removing “The Box” from the Common Application itself.

“The Box” refers to a page on the undergraduate application for admissions that includes the following two questions alongside boxes requiring applicants to check “yes” or “no.”

Have you ever been found responsible for a disciplinary violation at any educational institution you have attended from the 9th grade (or the international equivalent) forward, whether related to academic misconduct or behavioral misconduct, that resulted in a disciplinary action?

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

 The Incarceration to Education Coalition (IEC) was founded in the fall of 2013 by formerly incarcerated New York University students, students without criminal records, faculty, and community members and is committed to abolishing this Box, which is a tool of surveillance that constitutes racial and economic discrimination.

The Box was added to the NYU undergraduate application in 2005; the Common Application added the Box in 2006, the same year that NYU started purchasing its services. For the past nine years every undergraduate applicant at NYU has been confronted with The Box. It has never been accompanied by any public policy or formal rationale, legal precedent or support, training prerequisites (for admissions officers), or empirical evidence.

Over the past eight months the IEC has spoken with student leaders and organizations, government, deans, admission office representatives, enrollment management, and the university president to find out why NYU continues to use The Box. No one has been able to answer exactly why it is maintained but many respond by saying that it helps determine “risk.” This response raises the question: What exactly is meant by “risk”?

Does “risk” mean that formerly incarcerated individuals are likely to commit crimes on campus?

1. Empirical evidence actually confirms that the majority of crimes committed on campuses are committed by people without documented criminal records (Runyan, Pierce, Shankar, & Bangdiwala, 2013). Further more, while 66% of colleges ask about criminal records and disciplinary infractions, the prevailing research reflects they are no safer than colleges that do not ask for this information (Weissman, et al., 2010).

Does “risk” mean that criminal history predicts future behavior on campus?

2. There is no empirical evidence that criminal history screenings can predict future crimes on campus (Weissman, et al., 2010)

Does “risk” mean that universities are especially liable for the behavior of formerly incarcerated students (more so than students without criminal histories)?

3. NO. Only one university has ever been brought to court for liability related to the behaviors of a formerly incarcerated students and the court ruled in favor of the university dismissing liability (Eiseman v. State, 1987).

There simply is no significant correlation between The Box and campus safety or academic performance. Thus, “risk” in this context operates as an indicator of stigma based on fear, not a realistic assessment of an applicant’s future behavior. Pedro Noguera, Professor of Education at NYU, supports doing away with the Box: [Abolishing] the box for all college applicants, including those applying to NYU, is the best way to provide educational opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals.” And what’s more, education dramatically reduces recidivism thereby increasing public safety: Of the 700,000 people released each year, 43.3% will return to prison within three years of release; this rate drops dramatically with access to higher education: 13.7% for individuals who earn an associates degree, 5.6% for individuals who earn a Baccalaureate and less than 1% for individuals who earn a Masters degree will recidivate (EIO).

Some NYU administrators have suggested that if formerly incarcerated applicants are admitted at similar rates to applicants without criminal records then the policy is not discriminatory. By singling out students with criminal records however, the presence of The Box alone is discriminatory, regardless of whether qualified applicants are admitted. Significantly, the Eiseman Court (1987) asserted that this kind of screening “is at odds with the laws and public policy regarding the release of prisoners.” Michelle Fine, Distinguished Professor at The Graduate Center asserts, “Exclusion is political cowardice with no benefits. Remove the box, open your doors and others will follow.  NYU will flourish in terms of the university’s intellectual life, the rich diversity of your student body and the ethical standards to which your institution aspires.”

The United States has always maintained an interest in marking certain groups punishable, unsafe, enslave-able, and more deserving of public control. This has meant that the lives of people of color—particularly poor people of color—have always been less private, more monitored, and on trial. To the coalition—many of whom have been incarcerated—that The Box has gone unquestioned for years by administrators is at best irresponsible. At worst, these politics of criminalization are not far removed from the politics that send a militarized police force into a residential neighborhood to end peaceful protests; only at NYU and elsewhere, the violence is administrative and therefore more easily justified by those invested in denying the harm of racism. Ruth Wilson, Gilmore Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences and author of Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, voiced her support of Abolishing the Box at NYU explaining that, criminal history screenings are “symptomatic of how thoroughly militarized residents of the USA have become…The practice has to stop, and banning the box is one small but precise way to put the brakes on the culture of war.”

Ultimately, The Box is only a small fragment of a much larger issue. Once it is removed IEC will continue our work to dismantle the social, economic, and political barriers that stigmatize and dehumanize formerly and currently incarcerated people.

Written by

The Incarceration to Education Coalition (IEC)

Works Cited

Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

Bonczar, T. “The Sentencing Project News – Racial Disparity.” The Sentencing Project News – Racial Disparity. N.p., 2003. Web. 14 May 2014.

Fine, M., Torre, M. E., Boudin, K., Bowen, I., Clark, J., Hylton, D.,… & Upegui, D. (2001). Changing minds: The impact of college in a maximum-security prison. Ronald Ridgeway.

Glaze, L.E. (2011). Correctional population in the United States, 2010. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Greene, C. A. (2013). Checking the Box-Enduring the Stigma-Applying to Graduate School. New York: John Jay Research. http://johnjayresearch.org/pri/files/2013/11/Checking-the-Box1.pdf

Halkovic, A., Greene, C, A. (Under-Review) Bearing Stigma, Carrying Gifts: What Colleges Can Learn from Students with Incarceration Experience.

Karpowitz, D. and Kenner, M. (1995). Education as crime prevention: The case for reinstating Pell Grant eligibility for the incarcerated. Annandale-on-Hudson, New York: Bard Prison Initiative, Bard College.

Runyan, C. W., Pierce, M. W., Shankar, V., & Bangdiwala, S. I. (2013). Can student-perpetrated college crime be predicted based on precollege misconduct?. Injury prevention. Published Online First: 23 February 2013. doi:10.1136/injuryprev-2012-040644.

Weissman, M., Rosenthal, A., Warth, P., Wolf, E. and Messina-Yauchzy, M. (2010). The Use of Criminal History Records in College Admissions Reconsidered. New York: Center for Community Alternatives


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