We Will Bring Everyone: Abolishing “The Box” and Administrative Violence at New York University

July 7, 2014, 10:45 am

checkboxA few weeks ago, we at Tenured Radical were approached by The Incarceration to Education Coalition, a collective that seeks out, analyzes and strives to remove barriers to higher education. Recently, the group has been in discussions with New York University about “The Box,” a check off on the NYU application, and on The Common Application (a service intended to make higher education more accessible), that asks potential applicants to indicate whether they have ever been convicted of a crime.* This guest post has been written by the Collective.

“Don’t come to my games. Don’t bring Black people and don’t come”
Donald Sterling, Former NBA owner

African American males do not want to go to college. “It isn’t in the culture.”
Vice President of Enrollment Management, New York University

What The Incarceration to Education Coalition (IEC) calls “The Box” is a question that requires college applicants to report “criminal” records of any kind. New York University began to ask about “The Box” in 2005. In 2006, NYU joined the Common Application, which officially added “The Box” to its preliminary questions in that same year. Although every single NYU undergraduate applicant over the past nine years has had to answer this question, admissions officers have neither developed, nor been given, a policy, formal rationale, legal support, or training as to how this information is used. “The Box” persists despite empirical evidence that suggests that criminal history screenings on college applications do not predict future participation in campus crimes** or academic achievement.

Over the last 6 months, our coalition has spoken with student and administrative leaders at NYU about abolishing “The Box.” The only consistent rationale for maintaining this practice we have heard is that “The Box” is a tool for managing risk. Responses to “The Box” supposedly help determine who is “risky,” and “safe.” Through our conversations with administrative officials in particular, it has become clear that their concerns about risk and danger are entangled in entrenched racist stereotypes. “Risk” functions as a symptom of White anxiety, serving as a mechanism for maintaining White supremacy.

The reactions of the administration to our campaign reflect institutional racism, and have reflected the common pitfalls and tropes that serve to maintain White supremacy in society at large: When we argued that checking “The Box” does not correlate with a likelihood of causing harm on campus, we were told that “The Box” must then be “successful” in helping to filter out “unsafe” individuals. When we argued that abolishing “The Box” will reduce violence in our community, we were told that even the idea of abolishing “The Box” is unthinkable in the face of increasingly visible conversations of gender-based violence on campus.

These responses, like most attempts at justifying racism, play on myths and remove attention from the real violence that is being committed. We have seen “The Box” used as a decoy to deflect attention from the financial violence inflicted by educational institutions on people of color and low-income communities. We have seen administrators use “The Box” to prop up fears surrounding gender-based violence on campus, relocating the cause of all harm to individuals with criminal records. Encountering such arguments has heightened our understanding of administrative violence, and the uphill battle we face in our campaign.

Administrative Violence as a Pervasive Tool

What do we mean by administrative violence? We understand administrative violence to be a function of both institutional and interpersonal oppression, where the individual acts out the oppressive foundations of the institution, while the institution in turn feeds the individual’s personal sense of power as a gatekeeper of privilege; it is a tool of violence enacted by administrators of an institution in order to maintain exclusionary and oppressive policies and structures.

Two months ago, former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s highly charged comments cost him his ownership of the the team and his relationship with the National Basketball Association. This provides an example of administrative violence that mirrors our coalition’s experiences with the NYU administration. NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling from the NBA for life for his racist remarks about Black people, fined him approximately $2.5 million, and urged Sterling’s peers to vote him out of the league. Although we recognize these outcomes as significant, there is still much to question. Are we living in a society that equates consequences with accountability? How can we hold our institutions accountable for the violence committed by their administrators, and for the power shored by institutions themselves? Holding individuals accountable for their words does not in and of itself impact the structures and systems that thrive off of racism and White supremacy. It is Sterling’s voice and those like it that echo in the shadows of failed educational policies, violence against women (particular on college campuses), and the disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated people, while the structures and policies remain largely ignored and intact.

Administrative Violence: Who Pays

We then ask: what is the impact of administrative violence on people of color, and how are college applications implicated in that violence? People of color have historically been enslaved, shackled, caged, incarcerated, and “boxed” in. We must acknowledge the symbolic resonance between an 8×10 prison cell and the “The Box” on the college application; indeed, we must ask how communities are continually surveilled and marginalized by being asked to provide data for institutions. The practices of forced disclosure and categorization based on criminal records, gender, citizenship, and income continue to undermine open and affirming educational communities while also echoing violent stereotypes and maintaining the uneven distribution of resources that characterizes our country’s educational system.

We live in a hyper-incarcerated society. The United States incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world : we have built a system from chattel slavery that disproportionately impacts people of color, a carceral continuum where punishment bleeds from the prison cell-blocks to college admissions, housing applications, and access to employment. For this population of directly impacted people, Sterling’s comments are painful, but very familiar to those of us who navigate higher education. When college admissions asks formerly incarcerated people to report on their “criminal” history, it is as if they are saying, “Don’t come to our college. Don’t bring Black, poor, undocumented, non-white, or LGBTQ people. Don’t come.”

Administrative Violence at New York University

Two months ago, shortly before Sterling’s racist comments were unveiled, members of our coalition held a meeting with NYU’s Vice President of Enrollment Management and Assistant Vice President & Dean of Admissions. Our purpose was to discuss our campaign to “Abolish The Box” on the NYU application. These two white men were the highest ranking administrative officials we had met with thus far on our campaign. Our conversation quickly revealed that we were meeting with our own institution’s “Donald Sterling’s.”

We sat around a conference table for hours while these two officials supposedly played devil’s advocate. At one point, one of our members, a formerly incarcerated doctoral student (Black, male) attempted to explain the historical interconnectedness between the criminal punishment and educational systems and their exclusion and abuse of Black people. The VP of Enrollment Management interrupted almost immediately, claiming that he, with his background as a statistician, knew that African American males do not want to go to college, that they do not value education. “It isn’t in the culture.” He had apparently learned this while doing his own research in Cleveland, Ohio, where the mothers of Black men he spoke to had told him they would rather their sons work than pursue higher education.

This man continued to enact harm by insisting that NYU has no responsibility for, and has not contributed to, larger structural inequalities. According to him, “The Box” does not reflect, nor serve as, an extension of the country’s problem of incarceration. He denied the institution’s connection to historical oppression and persistently clung to his responsibility to manage risk and safety on NYU’s campus. He insisted that “The Box” was a neutral tool of collecting information, at one point even claiming that if the Common Application removed “The Box,” he would reinstitute it on NYU’s supplemental application.

Beyond the interpersonally violent impact of his words on members of our coalition, these administrators, in removing NYU from its social context, erase the suffering enacted by privatized educational systems across the world. NYU itself, the “global network university,” has left a trail of displacement and suffering with its expansion: it has changed the landscape of Downtown Manhattan at the expense of communities, enforcing both gentrification and heightened policing of those neighborhoods, and it has taken this violence across the world, where the recently revealed inhumane conditions inflicted on laborers at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus further exemplify the reach of institutional violence. Most private universities, in their oppressive policies laid bare on their college applications, and their decisions to invest in oppressive systems like prisons and fossil fuels, are implicated in violent oppression. This power and privilege fuels the administrative violence of the administrators we spoke to, just as the power and privilege of the NBA gave Sterling the platform to cause harm at both an interpersonal and social scale.

The question we must now ask is: how can NYU and its administrators be held accountable? NYU thus far has refused to address the administrative violence that we, the Incarceration to Education Coalition, have experienced. Our conversations with even higher ranked administrators since our meeting with the VP of Enrollment Management have been noncommittal: we have been told to forget about our experience with the VP of Enrollment Management. Even if the institution were to attempt to hold the administrators we spoke to accountable, we do not support systems of White supremacy that claim accountability without addressing the systemic racism that they are re-enforcing. “The Box”, and the admissions policies that permit it, further reproduce oppression and perpetuate White supremacy. As the public continues to address the racist remarks of powerful and wealthy individuals, we must also be clear about identifying the institutions to which such people are tied, and work to end the deeply racist structures and practices that are enforced by administrators.

In our experience with the administration at NYU, we as a coalition have gained a better understanding of the uphill battle we face. Administrative violence is a bulwark that is intent on surveilling communities, creating and maintaining margins, and enforcing exclusion. This kind of discrimination makes us all less safe, less whole. We recognize that the work of changing the institution is not the sole answer to socio-political and economic oppressions that prevent formerly and currently incarcerated people from fully participating in society as citizens and human beings. But abolishing “The Box” is a small yet important transformation that brings us one small step closer to real social safety and human liberation. Our work is about removing barriers, opening doors, and asserting, when told “Don’t come,” that “We will come. We will bring everyone, and we will hold you accountable.”


*Tenured Radical would like to add to the Coalition’s cogent analysis by pointing out that adult criminal records can be accessed easily by running a social security number through any commercial security service, juvenile records are sealed to prevent such abuses, and the Fifth Amendment protects us from self-incrimination.

**Marsha Weissman, Ph.D., Alan Rosenthal, Esq., Patricia Warth, Esq., Elaine Wolf, Ph.D., Michael Messina-Yauchzy, Ph.D. “The Use of Criminal History Records in College Admissions Reconsidered”, Center for Community Alternatives, Inc., November 2010.

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