It turns out it’s not that easy to change your name in college systems: There’s no one record.
Many documents — financial aid, insurance, medical records — require students’ legal names. Colleges have more flexibility with other registries, such as class rosters, housing lists, student ID cards, and email addresses, but those often dwell in disparate systems.
As colleges and universities examine their support for transgender students, they’re struggling to find ways to recognize the students’ name preference across the board.
New federal guidelines suggest that schools need to figure it out.
Many trans students have not changed their legal names for a variety of reasons but have preferred names in line with their gender identities. Use of their legal names can make those students uncomfortable and, in some cases, could out them as trans — which the Obama administration warned this month could be a privacy violation under federal law.
“No other students have to worry about that. So it didn’t seem like it was fair,” said Angela Lauer Chong, dean of students at the College of New Jersey.
TCNJ convened a task force this year to create a preferred name policy and, more broadly, study trans accommodations and campus support.
“We all agreed this was the right thing to do,” Lauer Chong said. “We just didn’t know how to do it.”
The U.S. Education and Justice Departments issued a “Dear Colleague” letter earlier this month explaining that the administration considers gender identity equivalent to sex assigned at birth for the purposes of Title IX compliance and regulations.
“This means that a school must not treat a transgender student differently from the way it treats other students of the same gender identity,” the letter reads.
The federal letter has provoked a backlash largely focused on restrooms and locker rooms. Last week, 11 states and state officials filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the Obama administration is overstepping the bounds of the executive branch by reinterpreting law.
Much of the discussion has been around policies and procedures now required in K-12 school districts. But the guidelines also apply to colleges and universities — including private ones that receive federal funds — so those schools also are figuring out what changes they must make. Two of the biggest issues are naming policies and housing.
“There is a body of knowledge about what constitutes safe and inclusive school climates in K-12. Not so much exists for higher education,” said Graciela Slesaransky-Poe, the founding dean of the School of Education at Arcadia University and a national expert on the inclusion of gender-nonconforming and transgender students.
Still, she said, best practices are emerging, and campuses should be reviewing their policies. All students, for example, should be asked about their preferred names and pronouns — “Always ask, never assume!”
Within three years, the University of Pennsylvania aims to create a simple way for students to identify their preferred names and have them used in all records. Now students have to work with administrators on an ad hoc basis.
“The fix right now is pretty labor intensive,” said Rob Nelson, executive director for education and academic planning at Penn.
Rutgers-New Brunswick put preferred name practices in place two school years ago, allowing students to choose names in areas such as class rosters and email. But student ID cards currently do not list preferred names, a practice in the process of changing.
Some of the difficulties with legal vs. preferred names mirror challenges in housing: When students are sorted into housing by legally listed biological sex, trans students are grouped with students who do not share their gender identity.
West Chester University this fall is rolling out “gender-inclusive” housing, allowing students to opt-in to living with students of different genders.
The College of New Jersey, Rutgers-Camden, and Penn also have “gender-neutral” or “gender-inclusive” housing. Details vary slightly between colleges; generally, they allow students to proactively seek housing with different genders.
But to be grouped with other students of their gender identity in traditional housing, trans students have to discuss their gender identities and housing preferences with staff. That places a burden on trans students to self-identify.
“We never want to put a student in the position of telling us information he or she doesn’t want to tell us,” TCNJ's Lauer Chong said.
Rutgers-New Brunswick houses students by gender identity and not sex at birth, and used to work with students on a case-by-case basis. Two years ago, the university streamlined the process so students can indicate gender identity on the housing application without having to specifically reach out to the university.
“Putting it out there and being proactive really sends the right message to our students,” said Zaneta Rago-Craft, the director of Rutgers-New Brunswick’s Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities.
Penn, on the other hand, plans to continue having students reach out on an individual basis, Nelson said, so it can make sure it is properly supporting the students. The university will communicate, for example, with trans students and also their roommates, to ensure there are no issues.
That kind of conversation is at the core of many colleges’ efforts to ensure trans students feel safe and welcome on campus; many schools have added or expanded their training for faculty and staff to better meet the needs of trans students.
In the end, Slesaransky-Poe said, the federal guidance “is a wonderful beginning to a very complex matter.”
Schools must work to address the needs of the trans community, she said, and be as inclusive and supportive as possible.
“We are making some progress,” Slesaransky-Poe said, “but legislation alone does not change minds and hearts. Education does.”
At TCNJ, that means changes across the board: adding more inclusive language to policies, changing pronouns to be gender-neutral, adding more gender options on forms.
“Some of it’s kind of amorphous, because you’re talking about culture,” Lauer Chong said, “and culture is one of those hard things to nail down and define.”