The SUNY Board of Trustees voted to remove the question of whether students have been convicted of a felony from the SUNY college application process starting July 2017. The decision comes amidst national concern for the barriers to higher education due to applicants’ criminal histories by more than two-thirds of colleges in the country. The SUNY New Paltz’ Student Association brought this issue to the attention of the SUNY Board of Trustees.
“It was a student-run and student-pushed initiative from the beginning, and then once the SUNY Board of Trustees saw that every Student Association was in favor of it, they decided to move forward with it,” SA President senior Michael Baranowski said.
Two student representatives from Geneseo were present at the conference last spring for voting purposes on behalf of the Geneseo SA.
The decision to stop inquiries over student criminal backgrounds is one that President Obama has pushed for. The main concern is the disadvantage generated toward marginalized minority groups, specifically for black applicants.
“There are people who have gone through tough times, they’ve made mistakes, but with a little bit of help, they can get on the right path,” Obama said. “And that’s what we have to invest in. That’s what we have to believe. That’s what we have to promote.”
Vice President for Student and Campus Life Robert Bonfiglio stressed that the college wants to provide greater access to higher education.
“As a public college, one of our strongest values is access and to provide access to the public for higher education—especially Geneseo,” Bonfiglio said. “We want to provide access to such high quality education.”
The main concern for the Geneseo community in regards to this new decision is student safety.
New York State Senator Cathy Young introduced and sponsored a bill to reverse SUNY’s decision. This new bill proposes a requirement for SUNY applicants to reveal any felony convictions and to provide details about the crime and when it took place. Young believes the decision to remove the question poses a threat to student safety. According to Bonfiglio, that’s a concern Geneseo has taken into account.
“Our paramount responsibility is for the safety and well-being of our students,” Bonfiglio said.
A new policy would require applicants to reveal the details of any felony convictions if they choose to live on-campus, partake in a field study or apply to study abroad programs.
“If for some reason there is that past in someone’s history, we’re still going to know about it, we’re still going to know who it is, so I think safety-wise it will even out,” Baranowski said.
SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher concurred: “It is in the interest of the State of New York to facilitate the admission of individuals with previous criminal convictions into the university because access to higher education can enhance public safety by reducing recidivism and facilitating successful reintegration.”
Baranowski said that he believes this policy has the potential to offer a new future for a group of people historically discriminated against by society and its various institutions.
“I think it’s worth it because [some people are] looking for that second opportunity and are trying to go down the straight [and] narrow and make up for a mistake they made in the past,” he said. “This gives them a little bit more of a fair opportunity at that chance.”