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Tipping Point for Trans Admissions?

Smith College will now accept transgender applicants who identify as women. Will other women's colleges follow?

May 4, 2015
 

Smith College's board on Saturday approved an admissions policy that explicitly welcomes applications from transgender people who identify as female.

The move by Smith, which follows similar shifts by several other leading women's colleges, is seen by some as a likely turning point in the fight by transgender women and their many allies at women's colleges to make those institutions welcoming of all who identify as women. For a long time, many women's colleges have had some students who are admitted and enroll as women, but who come to identify as men and transition toward that identity. And most women's colleges (Smith among them) have supported and retained such students. For those who were not born women, women's colleges have historically refused admission.

A joint statement from Kathleen McCartney, Smith's president, and Elizabeth Mugar Eveillard, the college's board chair, said the new policy affirms that Smith remains a women's college. "As we reflect on how Smith lives its values -- a commitment to access and diversity, to respecting the dignity of every individual, and to educating women for leadership across all realms of society -- we will be called, in changing times, to consider anew how we will choose to be a women’s college," said McCartney and Eveillard.

Under Smith's new policy, applicants need only identify themselves as female on the Common Application to be eligible. In an interview, McCartney said that she was proud that Smith was adopting self-identification as the only method for determining female status -- a policy that has been advocated by transgender rights groups.

People who were born women but who identify as men will not be eligible for admission. But those who apply and are admitted as women and subsequently come to identify as men will be permitted to stay.

The college announced that it would continue to refer to all students as women. "In keeping with our tradition and identity as a college of and for women, Smith will continue to use gendered language, including female pronouns, in institutional communications," the statement said.

Smith has been a focus of transgender rights advocates since an incident in 2013 when a transgender woman said she was rejected by the college because of her gender identity. Smith disputed parts of the applicant's story, but the account prompted numerous protests and scrutiny for Smith. As one of the five Seven Sisters colleges that remain women's colleges, Smith's policies also attracted attention.

Since 2013, three other Seven Sisters colleges -- first Mount Holyoke College, and then Bryn Mawr and Wellesley Colleges -- have announced that they would admit transgender applicants. Barnard College is the remaining Seven Sisters women's college that has yet to change its policy, but the college announced in December that it was studying the issue.

In California, meanwhile, two women's colleges -- Mills and Scripps Colleges -- have also moved to admit transgender applicants.

At the colleges that have moved to admit transgender students, including Smith so far, the reaction from students and faculty members and many alumnae has been strongly positive. McCartney said in an interview that Smith officials had been watching social media and finding near universal praise.

A majority of women's colleges have yet to change their policies and some are explicit about that.

Hollins University, for example, outlines in its student handbook that if an undergraduate admitted as a woman "undergoes sex reassignment from female to male (as defined by the university below) at any point during her time at Hollins, the student will be helped to transfer to another institution since conferral of a Hollins degree will be limited to those who are women." The handbook goes on to define sex reassignment as "when an undergraduate student self-identifies as a male and initiates any of the following processes: 1) undergoes hormone therapy with the intent to transform anatomically from female to male; 2) undergoes any surgical process (procedure) to transform from female to male; or 3) changes her name legally with the intent of identifying herself as a man."

The policy also states that if an undergraduate "is a residential student and she chooses to begin sex reassignment as defined above, the administration reserves the right, based on the best interest of the student and the university community, to decide if the student will be permitted to continue living in university housing."

The Hollins policy does indicate that it may change in the future, saying: "Recognizing the changing landscape as it pertains to individuals on the transgender spectrum, this policy will be reviewed on a regular basis."

Advocates for transgender students believe the landscape has changed in such a way that more colleges are likely to follow Smith. "Yes, without a doubt we are at a tipping point," said Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, a group that advocates for gay, lesbian and transgender students.

He said he remains concerned that "most high-level administrators and staff have a steep learning curve to go with the newfound awareness on trans people…  locked into a binary way of thinking about gender identity and a narrow way of viewing gender expression."

For women's colleges, the centrality of admissions to being inclusive of transgender students has been obvious, since the colleges use gender definitions to decide whom may be considered for admission. But Campus Pride has been involved in efforts at coeducational colleges as well, over the issue of collecting data (on admissions applications and elsewhere) about students' gender identity. For coeducational colleges, Campus Pride has urged colleges to add voluntary questions for applicants and those who enroll on sexual orientation and gender identity so that institutions can see whether they are attracting and retaining gay, lesbian and transgender students -- much the way colleges consider their performance at attracting and graduating minority students.

Some colleges -- such as Duke University -- have added such questions.

But many colleges rely on the Common Application, which in 2011 rejected the idea of adding voluntary questions about sexual orientation and gender identity. Smith's announcement referred to the Common Application and the need for applicants to check "female" on its form.

Windmeyer said that Smith's announcement is more evidence that the Common Application should reconsider its 2011 decision. "It was the wrong decision back then and it still is today," he said. "Things are changing. The Common App in order to be relevant will need to change."

A spokesperson for the Common Application did not respond to an email question on whether the organization was considering a change.

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