“How do we Organize the Heart?” -Chino Hardin, Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions-
To: Linda Mills and New York University
Re: Abolishing THE BOX at NYU
Over the last 5 months, student-led groups at New York University (The Incarceration to Education Coalition), Princeton University (SPEAR), Harvard (HOPE), the University of Washington, and Puget Sound have been galvanizing a national conversation, while pressuring their individual schools/universities to Abolish THE BOX: A movement against institutional violence and mass incarceration.
THE BOX refers to a page on the common application for admissions that require applicants to check “yes” or “no” to the following two questions:
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?
If an applicant checks yes to either or both of these questions, they are then requested to write an additional personal statement, explaining the incident. For those who have spent time in prison, THE BOX is similar to the long walk to parole board hearings; applicants’ desire to access higher education rests in the hands of others whose vision is often tainted by racism, classism, sexism and preconceived judgments.
When we placed an anonymous call to the admissions office at NYU we were told THE BOX is there “to assess risk and judge character”. When we asked NYU’s (former) Vice President of Enrollment Randy Deike and Assistant Vice President and Dean of Admissions Sean Abbott the same question, they told us “THE BOX does not discriminate” because “the criminal justice system is fair” and “applicants are evaluated on their responses to THE BOX”; applicants who do not have to check THE BOX and are evaluated solely on their academic credentials. By requiring formerly incarcerated students to justify and explain their desire to attend college within the context of their conviction, we have concluded that NYU is intentionally participating in the expansion of the criminal punishment system.
The Incarceration to Education Coalition (IEC) began organizing to remove THE BOX from New York University’s application for admissions in May of 2013. After many conversations with NYU administrators and leaders in student government, we are now challenging the privilege of administrative power by opening the dialogue up to the public.
After months of gathering support and feedback from faculty, programs, and student groups at New York University and throughout the country, we distilled recommendations for addressing comprehensive access to education for formerly incarcerated people. To share these recommendations we called a meeting with Linda Mills, who holds the dual titles of Vice Chancellor for Global Programs and University Life and Associate Vice Chancellor for Admissions and Financial Support. During our meeting we laid out each recommendation and were then told that the university—well aware of our work—already had plans of their own; they planned to issue a non-discrimination statement on the NYU website and delegate the issue of THE BOX to two NYU administrators. IEC maintains that Linda Mills must be directly accountable to this issue: issuing a non-discrimination claim without investigating discrimination is, at best, irresponsible; delegating the issue not only serves to deprioritize it but to further divert IEC through NYU’s administrative labyrinth. We shared these concerns with Linda Mills and the NYU Administration in a letter dated October 24th.
By making our concerns and the Abolish THE BOX campaign public, we seek to strategically expose how Linda Mills and the NYU administration have co-opted our knowledge and diluted the recommendations we have set forth, to serve an institutional agenda. As a collective of formerly incarcerated people, students (with and without documented criminal records), community based organizations, family members and supporters of people directly impacted by the criminal punishment system, researchers and activists it is from our analyses, experiences and organizing that a conversation about THE BOX has breath in the NYU community.
We have provided NYU with the long picture—critically connecting chattel slavery—a history of exclusion from education and punishment—to the criminal punishment system and institutions of higher education who endorse THE BOX. We have presented empirical evidence that suggests Abolishing THE BOX would reduce recidivism, increase public safety, enrich the university culture, strengthen communities hit hardest by mass incarceration and improve the health-care, employment opportunities, and social responsibility of formerly incarcerated individuals.
It is only from our critiques of NYU policies and our analysis of the gaps in NYU’s admissions procedures that Linda Mills and NYU have attempted to address issues of systemic and institutional discrimination. Linda Mills and NYU’s efforts to devise a team to address THE BOX, without the input and guidance of IEC, formerly incarcerated communities and allies and NYU students is another form of administrative violence, the stealing of community knowledge, and the co-opting of ideas with specific socio-political roots altering them to serve a different purpose: the privilege, the institution, but not those directly impacted by incarceration.
Ultimately, the university’s refusal to seriously consider our recommendations reflects a commitment to privileging white fear over the lives of Black, Brown, poor, LGBTQ and immigrant people: people most impacted by mass incarceration. This institutional violence is not separate from the other forms of US institutional violence that are currently making headlines across the world. Furthermore, the refusal to Abolish THE BOX does not reflect the current interests of the NYU student body. The Student Senators Council, NYU’s overarching student government, fully supports Abolishing THE BOX and our campaign.
Continuing to distance herself from collaboration with IEC and the issue, Linda Mills was absent from a critical public conversation hosted by IEC at NYU in mid-November. “Mass Incarceration and the Policing of Targeted Groups” provided a humanizing framework for seeking justice; one that is of critical importance to confronting THE BOX.
Although all of NYU’s lead administrators–including The President, Vice Chancellor for Admissions and Financial Support, Dean of Admissions and the Vice President of Enrollment–were absent, Kimball Hall was packed with students, faculty, administrators and New York City community members. Panelists Latoya Philip, Shirley LaVarco, Vivian Nixon, Andre Ward, Chino Hardin, Khalil Cumberbatch and Kirk James, provided personal testimonies and soulful analyses of state and institutional violence with historical roots in racism, capitalism, sexism, White supremacy and Empire. Through both laughter and serious critiques, the audience heard how and why white people, the wealthy and those in authoritative roles maintain their “power,” wealth, and privilege through narratives of exclusion, practices of exploitation and frameworks of dehumanization.
Standing on the principle that education is a human right, IEC believes that any barrier, policy, practice and/or ideology that hinders a currently or formerly incarcerated person’s access to higher education is in fact, an act of dehumanization.
Linda Mills and New York University’s lead administrators may have ignored the most recent public conversation about Abolishing THE BOX at New York University, but the dialogue is not over. We encourage Linda Mills, New York University, Harvard, Princeton, Puget Sound, University of Washington and the 500 plus members of the Common Application to join us in confronting this human rights issue.
IEC challenges Linda Mills and the members of the Common Application to stand on the right side of history and human justice by using the privilege of their leadership to address institutional violence, racism and discrimination, beginning with Abolishing THE BOX.
The Incarceration to Education Coalition (IEC)