• Just Explain It to Me!

    Breaking down notoriously confusing, perplexing and annoying systems and practices in higher education

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Why Can’t They Get My Name Right?

Colleges often mess up the names of their alums—especially the women among them. Here are some reasons why.

June 14, 2022

Over the last 30-plus years, I’ve seen more iterations of my name generated by my alma maters than I care to count. Miss Kathy Anne Johnson, Ms. Kathy Anne Johnson, Mrs. Kathy Anne Johnson Bowles, Kathy Johnson-Bowles. Once, I received a special issue magazine about women leaders addressed to Mrs. Kathy Bowles, which provoked a sharp letter to the magazine’s editor noting the irony. He admitted I was right and promptly said he had nothing to do with generating the mailing labels. I had to agree but asked him to pass on the feedback.

Years ago, after I grew so irritated that one of my alma maters wasn’t using my requested name, I told my then husband if anyone called again to tell the caller I was dead. And to my surprise, he did it. Guess what happened? Not long after the ruse, he received a letter asking if I had left a bequest to the university in my will. Oh yes, the institution went there. I kid you not.

Ultimately, the institution caught on I was still alive and started sending me mail again. They continued their stubbornly creative approach to salutations. When I divorced more than 12 years ago, I asked them to make a change. They did so. Then, a decade later, they started their “Mr. and Mrs.” nonsense once again. I called and asked for a correction. We’ll see how long it is until it gets changed to something else again.

After years of serving in higher education advancement and communication offices, I know I’m not the only one whose name gets mucked up. People often complain about it. Female donors and alumnae also complain about having the primary relationship with the institution and receiving correspondence addressed to their male partner. And being listed as “Mrs. [husband’s name].” Everyone laments, why can’t institutions get my name right?

Here are some possible reasons:

Official student records: After graduation, student information (except information about coursework, grades, health and disciplinary actions) is shared with the advancement office for alumni engagement, communication and gift solicitation. If student records (salutations regarding gender and names) are incorrect, they will be wrong moving forward.

Lived-by name: Some institutions are eager to ensure alumnx names are listed as they are lived by correcting salutations and names, while others require legal documentation to change a name in the system. A requirement to legally prove a lived-by name is somewhat duplicitous, because many institutions readily change women’s names when they marry—even without a request by the woman or a legal document. Institutions should find data management solutions for gender identity and lived-by names.

Antiquated etiquette practices and implicit bias: The process of entering data is fraught. Data managers often adhere to antiquated conventions and assumptions. This is especially true in entering couples into the system. If the advancement office receives a check with both a man and woman’s names, the convention of “Mr. and Mrs.” is followed. The man’s name is entered as the primary constituent (head of household) even though the woman may be the primary constituent (the alum or person who is making the gift or head of household). Subsequently, when thanking the donor or asking for another donation, the woman is left off and/or the salutation reads “Mr. and Mrs. [man’s name].”

In other cases, the person entering the data may be deterred by trying to apply a heteronormative rule to input when recording same-sex couples. They may also have a bias against recognizing same-sex couples. Therefore, the couple’s records aren’t tied together at all.

Institutions should stop using honorifics and salutations based on a gender binary, marital status and antiquated notions of etiquette. Institutions shouldn’t blindly adhere to sexist or heteronormative conventions regarding whose name comes first in a letter, an envelope, a list or a building. The primary constituent should be the person who has the direct relationship and/or who made the contribution.

Other types of implicit bias: Many institutions may not train staff for a global approach to recording names. Therefore, names may be Anglicized by leaving out diacritical marks. The difference between Mich’ele and Michelle is a significant difference for an individual, as it denotes heritage and identity. Other examples include the order of a person’s name or how many names are included. In China, last names come first, and Brazilians use two or more last names. This resource on names worldwide from the W3C Internationalization Working Group provides information about how various cultures approach names.

Shadow databases: Constituent data are typically held and managed by the advancement services office. Departments within the university occasionally ask the advancement services office (sometimes via the alumnx relations office) to provide them with a mailing list. The purpose may be to send departmental newsletters or to ask for participation in mentorship and internship programs, career counseling, advisory boards, and strategic planning processes. The problem with these departmentally held databases is they stand alone. If the central database is updated, these shadow databases may not be, and vice versa.

If you ask the department to fix the information, it may not be fixed anywhere else. If you ask advancement to fix your name, it will still be wrong if the department doesn’t get an updated list. That’s why when you ask one area to update your name, it could be wrong when you get your next mailing. Even if you ask the alumni relations office to fix information, they’re typically not the people who make changes in the system. Thus, the data may not be updated.

Improperly run queries and bad mail merges: Creating a mailing list requires the data manager to pull the correct fields of information. Leaving out certain fields may mean leaving out lived-by names or leaving out parts of a name. For example, with my name, if Johnson Bowles is entered into one field as my last name (correct), it would be addressed to Kathy Johnson Bowles (and alphabetized under J). But if Johnson is entered as my middle name and Bowles is entered as a last name, there are two fields of information. So, if the query doesn’t ask for the middle name and last name field but only the last name the mailing will be addressed to Kathy Bowles (alphabetized under B).

There are lots of opportunities for mailings to go wrong. It gets more complicated when someone with little experience works with the data. For example, if someone orders the fields incorrectly on a mass solicitation letter and a couple has different last names, their names could be mixed up. Stephen Long and Kathy Johnson Bowles could end up Stephen Johnson and Kathy Johnson Long.

Data farming and looking for “lost” alumnx: When institutions don’t have current information or addresses for alumnx, they often engage companies to search for it. This information may or may not be correct or only partially correct. This is another way for information to be changed or reverted to old or incorrect information.

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