I was disturbed reading the news yesterday. Well, that seems a bit general. For the last week and a half, I’ve been disturbed by the news every time I go on Facebook or Twitter.
But this particular moment of existential dread was driven by the news of Daniel Dropik. It turns out this “alt-right” guy who wants to start a white
pride organization student club was convicted in 2005 of arson attacks on black churches. That tidbit of news quickly shut up all the commenters online who were defending Dropik.
However, I was further chilled to read UW-Madison Chancellor Blank’s full statement. Dropik’s convictions were unknown to the UW because the school doesn’t take arrests and convictions into account in the applications process. As Blank said, this is a policy to give students a second chance. Blank also went on to say that she wants to revise that admissions policy.
For years, I’ve wanted UW-Madison to get serious about the alarming number of racist incidents on campus. But this isn’t the right solution.
Changing the admissions policy to take into account criminal records is an absolutely horrible idea. In an attempt to stop a small handful of Daniel Dropiks from getting into the school, an admissions process that includes a criminal background check could close the door to a much larger pool of students with arrest records who truly deserve a second chance. In a cruel bit of irony, a change in admissions policy driven by a white supremacist could end up hurting prospective students of color the most. We should all be aware of our state’s abhorrent disparities when it comes imprisoning black citizens. An admissions system that looks at an applicant’s criminal record would disproportionately impact prospective students of color.
UW-Madison’s push to change the application process could have far reaching impact across the UW-System. Other campuses could follow suit; the Board of Regents could even choose to apply the change to all campuses.
Of course, a conviction record wouldn’t automatically stop a student from getting admitted to a UW school but it certainly wouldn’t help. Humans are incredibly subjective creatures. Once the person in the admissions office reads about a past indiscretion, it’s hard to get that out of his or her mind. Sure, I don’t mind if that means the guy who sets fires to AME churches doesn’t get in. But what about those who committed armed robbery when they were 17? What about the person who sold weed to make rent after high school? Do they deserve to be denied an education once they have paid their debt to society?
People with criminal records already face many barriers when it comes to getting an education. Drug convictions can make it difficult to get federal aid, even after the sentence has been completed. Parole and probation conditions often limit travel, restricting college options. Our society makes it hard for people to turn their lives around and get an education; we don’t need to construct one more barrier.
Awful human beings like Daniel Dropik test the systems we have created. They give us reason to question basic civil rights and liberties. But it is precisely when we allow our society to be governed around the worst that we end up hurting the innocent. It’s why those accused of the worst imaginable crimes still deserve a good defense attorney. To do otherwise risks jailing the wrongfully accused. It’s why our country should strive to assist refugees from all over the planet, even when there’s a risk that an infinitesimal number of them may wish us harm. The America I believe in isn’t fearful or cruel. It’s why we will still let studios release superhero films, even after all of the pain and suffering caused by Batman v Superman. Because these superhero movies are my only avenue for self-care right now.
I am ashamed that a hate-monger like Dropik is a student at my alma mater. I am more ashamed that UW-Madison is considering abandoning its values because of him.