University of Michigan faculty, students and community members gathered Wednesday to discuss a new university policy requiring employees to disclose felony charges or convictions.

The town hall was organized by the Carceral State Project, an interdisciplinary collaboration that brings together U-M researchers, writers and artists with communities and advocacy organizations to address issues of mass incarceration, policing and immigration detention.

Under the new university policy — SPG 601.38, Required Disclosure of Felony Charges and/or Felony Convictions — faculty, staff, student employees, volunteers and visiting scholars are required to inform the university within one week of a felony charge or conviction that occurred on or after Feb. 1, 2019.

Felonies are more serious crimes and are often punishable by jail time, probation and fines. They include offenses such as murder, child abuse, aggravated use of a weapon, criminal sexual conduct, identity theft and home invasion.

The policy applies to faculty and staff on the Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint campuses and in Michigan Medicine, but does not currently apply to those covered by the terms of a collective bargaining agreement. It also does not apply to charges or convictions that occurred before Feb. 1.

The Carceral State Project has created an open letter asking the university to rescind the new policy.

Photo of Ashley Lucas moderating Wednesday's town hall
Ashley Lucas, associate professor of theatre and drama and a member of the Carceral State Project steering committee, moderated Wednesday’s town hall discussion. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

At the town hall, attendees and organizers addressed the new policy, as well as the university’s existing practices of conducting background checks, and including criminal history questions on employment and admission applications.

Topics included a perceived lack of transparency in creating the policy, barriers formerly incarcerated people face in pursuing an education and the need for students to communicate with administrators if university policies do not make them feel safer on campus.

Ashley Lucas, associate professor of theatre and drama, School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and member of the Carceral State Project’s steering committee, said universities and employers should not punish people with criminal records who have done their time.

Instead, they should be “given opportunities to flourish to the greatest extent possible,” said Lucas, also an associate professor of English language and literature and in the Residential College, LSA, and of art and design, Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design.

Natalie Holbrook, a program director for the American Friends Service Committee, said her organization has partnered for years with the university to educate students through service learning projects. She said university policies and practices that can potentially penalize those with criminal histories conflict with the university’s research mission.

“This school takes advantage of populations and community organizations on a regular basis for research,” Holbrook said. “I think that it’s a problem. I think you cannot do both. You cannot have a policy like this, and you can’t continue to have these really restrictive admissions policies, and then rely on community organizations that work with people who are in prisons and who have felony convictions.”

Photo Matthew Lassiter speaking at Wednesday's town hall
Matthew Lassiter, professor of history and associate professor of urban and regional planning, and a member of the Carceral State Project steering committee speaks at Wednesday’s town hall. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

Matthew Lassiter, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Carceral State Project steering committee member, said that years ago, when he was involved in conversations to incorporate criminal background checks at the university, administrators believed they could create a nondiscriminatory process.

“They believe they can create a process that doesn’t reproduce the bias outside the university. That is impossible,” said Lassiter, also a professor of history, LSA, and associate professor of urban and regional planning, A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

“Everything we teach in all kinds of history shows that you cannot create a nonbiased process and impose it on a biased society.”