For the first time, the application to attend the University of Washington is asking would-be students some controversial new questions: Have you ever been convicted of a violent felony offense, are any such charges pending, and are you a registered sex offender? A follow-up question on the application asks, for anyone who answers yes to one of the first questions, "why this information should not be a cause for concern to the safety to the university."
Applicants who answer yes could be denied entry to the school, says UW Provost Ana Mari Cauce.
Cauce acknowledges the policy may have problems, but she says the questions are narrowly tailored to identify applicants who may endanger people on campus. Critics say the new scrutiny responds to a problem that doesn't exist and ultimately undermines the corrections process. They say criminals who served their time should be able to get an education without onerous hurdles placed in their way.
For her part, Cauce says the new application questions are in response to an article last year in the Seattle Times, which reported that two level-three sex offenders, convicted of molesting and raping children respectively, were enrolled at the school. Cauce explains that "it was very scary to our students," parents raised concerns, and it "made us think about our policies." They looked at other major universities in Washington—Western Washington
and Washington State University—which ask applicants a variety of questions about their criminal history.
"For a narrow band of offenses, we want to take a second look," says Cause. Violent felonies, under federal law, include everything from bank robberies, to murder, to crimes against children and sexual assaults. In Virgina, some forms of burglary fall into the category.
Did the two sex offenders cause any problems? "To the best of my understanding, they did well here," Cauce says."They completed their degrees without incident." But she says generally, the question targets those who "are considered to be at high risk of re-offending."
Critics aren't convinced. Sean Johnson, a UW sophomore who helped start a group called Huskies for Fairness, says the policy "can only serve to widen the gap in educational racial disparities." He adds, "There is no evidence to substantiate the idea that including criminal background questions on university applications reduces crime on campus or increases campus safety." A petition to remove the questions from UW applications has garnered more than 3,600 signatures.
The change comes as Seattle has moved in the opposite direction. In June, the city made criminal record questions illegal in the first stage of hiring processes, so that convicts face one less barrier to employment.
I pressed Cauce on whether the policy change is based on anything more than the one article about two sex offenders who didn't cause any problems—other incidents or crime statistics. She had no other explanation.
She suggested this policy could even serve as an incentive for people in jail to "turn their lives around" by participating in education programs, because UW will look upon that favorably. "I have no intention or desire to eliminate those with such histories when they are committed to rehabilitation," Cauce wrote in a response to the petitioners.
"If we deny someone for this reason, we'll let them know. And they will be allowed to petition," she told me. Cauce noted that she's worked closely with students who are ex-offenders, and she says UW is proud of "being a place where someone can change their life."
To ask the questions critics are raising: Doesn't this policy force people who've fulfilled their sentences but no longer have legal representation (or who've only been charged but not convicted) to defend themselves all over again?
"I'm not telling you there are no problems with it," she acknowledged. "I'd be a liar if that was the case. If the negatives outweigh the positives, we'll revisit."