Gender Identity Norms Shift, and Institutions Move to Reflect Them

Institutions are tweaking campus information systems to make them better reflect students’ gender identities but are finding the technology to do so challenging.

January 25, 2022
 
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Campus technology is playing catch-up to changing norms around gender identity.

The Common App began asking students what name and pronouns they use during the current admission cycle, meaning about 900 colleges now receive applications from students who are identified by names and pronouns of their choosing in addition to their legal names and genders assigned at birth.

This shift is a sign of the times, but it’s not one all colleges are ready to contend with, particularly since technology hasn’t caught up to the zeitgeist. But students are increasingly asking for these changes, which has spurred colleges to act.

Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, which provides advocacy and cultural and educational programming on LGBTQIA issues, called the Common App’s policy change a significant step forward but noted that while more than 200 institutions now allow students to list the names and pronouns they use in campus information systems, many more do not.

Beemyn, who is also the coordinator of Campus Pride’s Trans Policy Clearinghouse, blamed technological friction for the slow pace of progress.

“There are definitely hiccups,” Beemyn said. “There are very different systems on college campuses, and they all don’t speak to each other.”

Beemyn said UMass Amherst updated software everywhere on campus where students swipe their ID card—more than 20 campus points—to reflect students’ chosen name. It was one of the first campuses in the country to make this change in 2014, Beemyn said.

Not all institutions are as far along as UMass. Laura Gogia, senior analyst at the Tambellini Group, a higher education research and advisory firm, said many institutions are seeking more agile technology to support students’ names and pronouns across campus systems, in part because they want to cut down the number of times students must request a name or pronoun change. Gogia, who has spoken to registrars and campus technology leaders about the challenge, said efforts to expand use of chosen names and pronouns are usually driven by student affairs staff and campus leaders, but that hands-on participation from IT staff is needed.

Different types of technology don’t manage information the same way, so how a student information system captures a name or a pronoun may differ from how a different campus system does, Gogia said.

Gogia, who recently wrote a blog post about this issue, said institutions should expect technological challenges as they try to address the problem.

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“Although student information systems and CRMs [customer relationship managers] support preferred name and pronoun functionality, institutions report that it is often limited—even in next-generation systems,” Gogia wrote. “Many campus point solutions do not adequately support preferred names and pronouns. Workarounds and customizations are generally still required.”

Campus point solutions include study abroad and athletic program management, student success platforms, and career services offerings, Gogia said. Many institutions have struggled to map personal information from one campus system to the next.

Gogia said institutions are waking up to the fact that some students are “literally having to run all over campus” to multiple offices to request name and gender changes, because many institutions do not have student-facing systems integrated with the student information system over all. Gogia said that while most student information system vendors now offer a field for preferred name to be listed, fewer offer space for pronoun choices. She said that because the concept of listing an alternate name or choice of pronoun is new, the interfaces for communicating that preference within a larger system are immature.

“If your downstream systems are not treating preferred names in the same way as your upstream system, then you’re out of luck,” Gogia said.

The College of Charleston has been working to seamlessly integrate names and pronouns for students across campus for about five years, according to Mark Staples, the college’s chief information officer. He said the institution began its effort by upgrading its enterprise resource planning system to allow all staff, students, and faculty to select their gender pronouns.

Staples said that while the student information system (SIS) is being upgraded to reflect students’ names and pronouns, an additional 140 systems are connected to that core SIS system and may not be upgraded. When some of those 140 systems don’t automatically include space for an alternate name and gender pronouns, Staples said, his team must write customized code to allow for including the information. He said some software, including software as a service (SaaS) such as Google products used for email, does not offer customers the ability to add fields into their database.

“This can get real complex, very quickly, when not all systems are speaking, or have the same capabilities,” Staples said.

Staples said institutions want to be more inclusive but are sometimes limited by their technology and how much money they can invest in upgrading it.

“I don’t know of any institution, frankly, that does not want to do this,” Staples said of providing students space to include their choice of names and pronouns. “It depends on where they are in their modernization process.”

He said most institutions have the capacity to list preferred names, but many fewer have a field for pronouns.

“Preferred gender and some preferred pronoun functionality is fairly new in the grand scheme of things,” Staples said.

Alicia Caudill, executive vice president for student affairs at the College of Charleston, said the institution’s efforts to update its technology began in response to questions from students, who wanted to ensure their names and pronouns were correctly captured everywhere they went on campus.

“It really came up as an idea from students about how to feel more included, how to make sure that how they identify with their gender is consistent with how they’re addressed in the classroom, or in student organizations, or in their residence halls, an idea of being inclusive and feeling supported and feeling like they can be who they are, even if that is maybe not consistent with a legal name that they were given at birth,” Caudill said.

Caudill said the College of Charleston keeps students’ legal names in the system but ensures their preferred name and gender is used everywhere they go.

“It really reinforces the idea of students who are coming through college and finding their full identity and being able to live those full identities and do it in a safe way,” Caudill said. “We hear a lot from students that they feel supported—it helps them feel safe.”

Ryan Thompson is president of the student body at College of Charleston and goes by his middle name. Thompson, who is gay, said he and many of his friends who identify as gay are grateful for the college’s efforts. He shared an email from the college’s health services department advising him on how to change his name or pronoun on his medical records to provide an example of how the college lets students know they can be recognized for who they are.

“Whenever you do online registration, there is a preferred name line, and it streamlines that across campus,” Thompson said. “The College of Charleston is a really good spot for queer students … This matters so every student feels comfortable in their classroom and uniforms the policies so everyone can go to class and be called what they want to be.”

Jules Schwenderman, a senior at Syracuse who socially transitioned last year—meaning they changed their pronouns, name and clothing choices to reflect their nonbinary identification—said Syracuse began allowing students to choose their own pronouns about two years ago, but that “on the roster” birth names and genders show up. No faculty members have honored Schwenderman’s pronouns, which makes them wonder if the faculty members have access to that system.

“There’s no option for students to disclose their gender identity through the university—you only have your assigned sex at birth,” they said. πTo get that changed through the university, you would have to go to the bursar’s office and fill out a form, and they’ll only recognize it if you have legal documentation.”

Schwenderman is frustrated by the red tape.

They said Syracuse “didn’t set faculty and staff up with the tools to appropriately use language around gender, pronouns and name changes, and the legal documentation is just another hurdle that makes it harder for trans students to be fully represented.”

Matt Stillman, the registrar at Southern Oregon University, said his institution also has prioritized updating systems to reflect students’ identities. He said the effort has been two-pronged, separating out how names and gender identifications are handled. He said transcripts do not include references to gender at all, but they do use legal name versus preferred name.

Preferred names are used in learning management systems, in the directory and on class rosters, Stillman said, but on payroll, official transcripts and federal financial aid forms, legal names are used.

Stillman said the institution is a “little further behind” in navigating the pronoun issue, because while the institution allows students to “select whatever gender identification they so desire, the big difference is that, at the moment, pronouns don’t really filter into a lot of places like names do.”

He said the technology needs to catch up to intentions.

“I’ve lost count, frankly, of how many third-party systems and software that we utilize to provide services to students, and to faculty and staff,” Stillman said. “We work with a variety of external organizations and companies … Some of them are on top of it completely, and some of them are behind … So it’s been a learning curve.”

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