Does Title IX Silence Sexual Assault Survivors?

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Cybill Rights (a pseudonym) works with victims of sexual and intimate partner violence domestically and abroad. She also teaches about victimology to students and justice professionals.

As a criminologist who studies sexual violence in colleges, I was surprised by the way that universities implemented changes in response to Title IX legislation over the past few years. Title IX is part of a U.S. civil rights law, created in the early 1970s to address discrimination on the basis of sex in public education. Title IX also deals with sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence, as those actions impede a person’s (usually girls’ and women’s) opportunity to receive a quality education. Public universities must be in compliance with Title IX in order to receive public funding.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague letter in response to Title IX complaints. The letter seemed promising, as it began with research on how often sexual assault is perpetuated in college (which is often), and then provided very detailed suggestions on how to confront sexual harassment and assault. I agree with some of the letter’s suggestions and disagree with others. My main issue with the changes is that universities interpret and/or implement them in ways that go against the knowledge and research on sexual violence.

Scholarly literature continuously asserts that sexual assault is a crime of power. Sexual assault takes away a victim’s power and agency. To assist with healing, we need to affirm survivors’ agency and re-empower them. And we do so by creating an environment wherein the person who experiences sexual assault feels safe and is able to make their own choices.

What does re-empowering a person who was sexually assaulted look like? In advocacy-based programs, re-empowerment entails an advocate listening to victims and speaking on their behalf, but not making decisions for them. It is about providing the person with options and letting them chose their own path to healing. They need to make both big and small choices, and often it is best to start small, such as preference for a meal.

Then, of course, there are the bigger choices regarding the incident, such as whom they choose to tell. They may or may not choose to tell the authorities (e.g., law enforcement). They may choose to report it to the university officials as opposed to the campus or local police. Here is where it gets tricky within the recent Title IX changes, namely the issue of mandatory reporting.

Mandatory Reporting

Mandatory reporting requires many university employees (including professors, staff members and resident advisers) to report if a student tells them about an incident of sexual assault. Institutions define slightly differently which incidents must be reported, but one thing seems consistent: the employee must provide the name of the student who disclosed being raped or sexual assaulted to the Title IX coordinator or someone of equal position.

This means that the choice as to whom the student tells their story is taken away from them. Their agency in that regard is essentially removed.

In addition to removing the students’ agency (read: disempowering them), mandatory reporting yields another set of concerns. The sexual assault victim often makes their initial disclosure to someone whom they trust. On college campuses, that can range from a friend to a professor. It is less common for it to be an authority figure, such as an officer or an administrator.

Research suggests that the first person a victim of sexual assault tells is extremely important. If that person believes them and is supportive, it facilitates the victim’s healing. A positive, empathetic response from the listener is paramount.

But mandatory reporting is not training employees to respond empathetically or even to engage in active listening. It is a requirement for employees to report someone else’s personal information, a potentially painful, traumatizing and embarrassing incident.

Here, the criticism of this policy can then be extended to a broader criticism of the university in that it tends to be liability focused rather than student focused. Mandatory reporting supports the notion that the employee is liable if they choose not to or fail to report. Depending on institution and the position of the employee, they may have little protection from censure. Of course, it could be argued that it is meant to protect students, but that is a paternalistic perspective that is not necessarily supported by extant research.

Suggestions for Re-Empowering Victims

What is the best course of action to make Title IX policies genuinely student focused, then? I offer the following suggestions for policy makers and universities based on my research on sexual violence.

  • Allow anonymous reporting. University employees should still be expected to report any disclosed sexual violence, but they should not be required to mention names if the victims prefer to remain anonymous. That protects students’ agency. It is their choice to whom they tell their story, but the university could still gauge the prevalence of sexual assaults on the campus on an aggregate level.
  • Train all professors, staff members and other employees (including Title IX coordinators) how to respond appropriately. That includes how to listen actively to sexual violence stories and to reject victim blaming and rape myths. They do not need to become victim advocates, per se, but their institutions should train them to respond empathetically. Universities should also provide them with a list of resources to give to the student who has been sexually assaulted. This information would include the Title IX coordinator and information about that office, but it would be a victim’s choice if they want to go the formal route.
  • Inform and support a student who formally reports a sexual assault about the process. Universities should administer anonymous or at least confidential surveys to the people who report. They could ask them how they felt they were treated during the process or if they felt justice was done. They can ask if they felt listened to and believed. They could ask them about what programs and policies they would like to see on the campus. From a procedural-justice perspective, victims feel better about the outcome when they are informed and involved in the process.
  • Focus on creating a campus culture that encourages students to come forward when sexually assaulted. Universities should create more safe spaces where students can express themselves freely and without judgment or recourse.

These are but a few of the ideas that are research supported. There are more — regarding the legal processes that are currently in place at universities — but that is for another post. To conclude, it is my hope that we can create an inclusive campus culture for all genders, which is what Title IX originally intended.

Title IX And Your University’s Legal Counsel

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Sara Matthiesen is a postdoctoral fellow in American studies at Brown University. She has worked to secure Title IX and labor rights for graduate and medical students since 2012. She will be an assistant professor of history and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at George Washington University beginning fall 2017.

As activists and legal advocates warned, the Trump administration has already done significant damage to civil rights designed to protect students. The news that the U.S. Department of Education is cutting back its investigations of claims is only the most recent example of just how little students and their advocates can rely on federal oversight. The withdrawal of Obama-era guidance on accommodations for transgender students and claims that gender discrimination in education is a matter of states’ rights have redrawn battle lines forged under the previous administration. While campus activists propelled that sympathetic administration to action through an unprecedented number of Title IX complaints submitted to the Office for Civil Rights, the blatant hostility of Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions is forcing activism back to the local level.

While efforts to oppose the administration’s attacks on Title IX and other enforcements against sex discrimination are vital, I am also welcoming a renewed focus on local accountability. Now that many more colleges and universities have dedicated Title IX offices and staff, it is time for activists to take a hard look at what it takes to make this work successful. For activists working with (and against) relatively well-resourced institutions, I suggest putting the spotlight on an overlooked but exceedingly powerful entity: your university’s legal counsel.

Unlike the highly visible offices of presidents, provosts and even Title IX coordinators who are routinely the target of student demands for accountability, university lawyers are often spared this external pressure, and only the most seasoned student activists even know such an office exists. This invisibility is structural and deliberate; unlike administrators, lawyers do not hold office hours, and many legal offices have an unofficial policy of not meeting with students. Those of us pushing colleges and universities to act in accordance with their values must start fighting this invisibility or we will continue to misgauge where the actual levers of power reside.

So, let’s take a moment to power map. Institutions that can support in-house legal guidance receive counsel on virtually all decision making — think faculty governance, real estate acquisition, financial aid and student conduct, for starters. A legal office evaluates everything from demands for sanctuary to unionization efforts to Title IX-related policies, with the aim of mitigating the college or university’s exposure to risk, be it legal or financial (and these often go together). The senior counsel is likely one of the institution’s highest-paid employees, and this position usually has a direct line to the president. This powerful office serves the institution; its obligation is to the university itself.

Therefore, the legal office has a fundamentally different aim than a Title IX office, which serves students, administrators and faculty members affiliated with the institution. A Title IX office is charged with making sure that incidents of gender discrimination are addressed promptly and equitably. This means, in part, facilitating a complaint process that balances the rights of all parties while resolving alleged policy violations related to Title IX. Ideally, this process is within a college or university’s Title IX office.

Given that, it is not difficult to imagine how a Title IX office might find itself at odds with the university’s legal representatives. To be sure, legal counsel is responsible for ensuring that the institution is in compliance with all manner of federal and state regulations, including Title IX, and so, in that respect, the offices’ aims align. When it comes to the specifics of individual cases, however, there will undoubtedly be competing risks with which legal counsel must contend.

Perhaps most obvious is the student or faculty member who retains a lawyer and threatens legal action. This instantly becomes the competing, more immediately pressing, risk of litigation. Litigation is costly; well-resourced colleges and universities hire external litigators when they go (or are taken) to court, which means institutions are paying an additional fee on top of their in-house expertise. This “threat” does not incentivize a Title IX office to re-evaluate its aims in the same way; its responsibility remains equity, especially in the face of litigation. When confronted with such power imbalances, the Title IX office is required to work toward restoring parity. Legal counsel, in contrast, works to inoculate the institution from financial and legal harm. Equity — especially when it is clear one party will not or cannot attempt to rectify the imbalance of their own accord — becomes a secondary concern.

Beyond the specifics of individual cases, climate and legal trends also influence a legal office’s risk assessment. By now, the backlash to colleges and universities taking Title IX seriously is in full swing, as groups like Save Our Sons and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education help popularize the argument that Obama-era guidance on addressing sexual assault often inherently violates students’ due process. Accused students with sufficient financial resources are increasingly lawyering up upon receiving a complaint, and lawyers are capitalizing on the narrative that Title IX protections imperil procedural fairness.

This climate only reinforces a Title IX office’s original aim to make sure that gender discrimination is resolved promptly and equitably, of which due process is a fundamental component. But for a legal office, this climate tips the scales towards one risk — legal action from an accused student or faculty member — and away from another — failing to uphold what is required under Title IX in every individual case.

Of course, all institutions must do the hard work of resolving competing aims. But when it comes to putting Title IX to work at the local level, numerous resignations of Title IX coordinators suggest which offices’ aims prevail when push comes to shove. While the documentary The Hunting Ground popularized a narrative about colleges and universities callously putting their brands and sports teams before their students, a far more mundane and inherently structural problem also necessarily curtails a robust implementation of Title IX. University legal offices and lawyers are not by definition malicious, but there will inevitably be cases that incentivize legal counsel to advise universities according to how best to avoid the immediate risk of litigation.

That can happen even when the law is on a university’s side, and even if it means sacrificing equity in a particular instance. And, because victims and survivors of sexual assault have largely turned to OCR for justice while respondents (the accused) have largely turned to the courts, avoiding litigation can mean bending a process for respondents and sacrificing equity for complainants simply because respondents are more likely to threaten suit. These are the instances in which a legal office — by virtue of its role within the university — necessarily imperils a Title IX office’s ability to ensure equity.

Thankfully, this problem is not insurmountable. Campus activists can take stock of their university’s legal representation to see whether campus lawyers have expertise in Title IX. This is a reasonable ask given that lawyers continue to play a role in Title IX implementation. They can work to make the relationship between legal counsel and the Title IX office transparent, to ensure that offices share a commitment to equity. Perhaps most important, they can call on presidents to weigh legal guidance and decide that weathering risk is worth institutional principles.

Campus activists have long made use of a vital tactic: holding the university to its stated values. For Title IX, this will mean ensuring that institutions commit to putting equity above risk even and especially in the face of legal action.

Campus Sexual Violence And The Adjunctification Of Higher Ed

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Alexis Henshaw is a visiting assistant professor in political science at Miami University. She is the author of Why Women Rebel: Understanding Women’s Participation in Armed Rebel Groups and conducts research on gender and armed conflict.

Adjuncts as Allies?

In the United States, a major push to deal with sexual assault on college campuses has coincided with another significant change in the higher education landscape: the adjunctification of college instruction. In 2011, a study by the American Association of University Professors estimated that 70 percent of all faculty members were contingent faculty, with over half of all instructors being part-time adjuncts.

In this environment, it is increasingly important that institutions bring non-tenure-track faculty into the fold when developing responses to sexual assault. Yet that calls into question our assumptions about the role of contingent faculty members, who are often seen as a transient presence in campus life.

I have spent 11 years teaching in contingent positions: as a graduate student, an adjunct and, most recently, a full-time visiting professor. I have also experienced sexual violence. And as someone specializing in the study of gender issues in international politics, I teach and research in areas related to gender-based violence more broadly. As such, I have noticed the conflict between an academe that is increasingly populated by term faculty and one that pledges to do better by the victims of sexual violence.

The paradox of contingency is that those of us who work in these positions often find ourselves drawn into campus life beyond the classroom, even as we are simultaneously kept at arm’s length. Contracts that emphasize that we are instructors only — without research and service obligations — belie the intertwined nature of these concepts, especially for those of us whose teaching connects with the complex social issues that our students face outside the classroom.

For me, the challenge of being contingent is not simply that I want to be an ally to students who have experienced sexual violence but also that students at times look to me to play that role. One factor that is often lost in debates about the adjunctification of higher education is that students do not distinguish between tenure-stream and non-tenure-track faculty in the same way that administrators do. This means that the go-to resource for the student who needs someone in whom to confide will probably be the person they trust — not necessarily the person with the most seniority or who has long-term job security.

For full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members especially, lines become blurred when students look to us for informal advisement. More than that, as the ranks of contingent faculty grow, some of us find ourselves counseling student groups, overseeing independent studies, even chaperoning student trips. Such responsibilities take contingent faculty above and beyond the “instructor-only” role. They also potentially place contingent faculty on the front lines, setting us up to be the authority figures that students will look to in a crisis situation.

Being an ally to students in such cases is an aspiration fraught with challenges for contingent faculty. Making non-tenure-track faculty aware of the resources on the campus for those affected by sexual violence — and keeping them updated on relevant changes to campus policies and personnel — should be essential, but this may not always happen.

To the credit of the institutions I have worked with, responses to sexual violence have always been a part of new faculty orientations that I have attended. However, that may not be the case at all colleges and universities, and especially not for adjuncts or part-time faculty members, who sometimes receive little or no formal orientation at all. Even when contingent faculty members are aware of resources for victims of sexual violence, they may not be given the full picture of campus climate. As of 2016, the U.S. Department of Education was investigating nearly 200 colleges and universities for their (mis)handling of sexual assault reports. Since higher education institutions have a vested interest in keeping such investigations low-key, faculty members who are part-time or temporary may lack valuable insight into systemic issues that contribute to the overall campus climate.

That has a potentially negative impact on students, for multiple reasons. First, surveys on campus sexual assault have generally highlighted an elevated incidence of sexual violence during the so-called red zone between the start of the fall semester and the Thanksgiving break. During this time, new women students in particular are considered vulnerable to sexual violence. At the same time, non-tenure-track faculty members increasingly teach the high-demand introductory courses that new students tend to take. If new students affected by sexual violence are not referred to proper care (including both short- and long-term care) and if they do not receive meaningful accommodations from their instructors, the result can be that victimized students feel overwhelmed, ultimately transferring or withdrawing altogether. In this sense, preparing faculty members to be allies takes on a sense of urgency.

Beyond the red zone, campus climate studies have also found that there are other high-risk periods for sexual assault that vary by institution. At some colleges, reports of sexual assault are higher during rush periods for Greek organizations or during winter terms when students take fewer classes and engage in more high-risk behaviors. These connections to student life are the type of issues that contingent faculty are likely to be unaware of, given their limited time on the campus. But having the full picture can help faculty members recognize when the student who is suddenly struggling in class could have something more urgent going on.

The debate over mandatory-reporter status is also particularly thorny for faculty members without the protection of tenure. In recent years, tenure-track and tenured faculty have also raised objections to the idea of making faculty members mandatory reporters — largely out of concerns for privacy, respect for the victim’s willingness to report and struggles over the ethical choices between keeping students’ trust versus carrying out an administrative mandate. While these are hard questions for all faculty members, the stakes may be particularly high for those of us without guarantees of long-term employment. What is a lecturer, visiting professor or adjunct to do when approached by a student who has experienced sexual violence but is not yet ready to report? Should they keep that student’s trust, knowing it may possibly cost them their job? It is a risk tenure-track faculty members may be more apt to take but one that could lead to termination for contingent faculty.

Adjunctification in higher education is a concern for many reasons, but the concerns associated with putting contingent faculty in the position to become mentors to students are seldom considered. That is a shame, since many of us stay in academe not just because we love publishing or standing in front of a classroom. We stay because we also want to be a positive force in the lives of our students. In my case, being an ally has meant attending a faculty reading group on sexual assault, attending events organized by student groups focused on sexual assault awareness and making many calls to administrators asking for guidance on how to deal with a student in crisis — even when I do not know the particular nature of the crisis involved. But I am aware that such efforts are above and beyond what is expected of most visiting faculty members. I also know that some contingent faculty members would struggle to take on this sort of unpaid labor at every institution where they teach.

These are the types of concerns that administrators should take seriously. A system that encourages us to demand the best of our students without also fully preparing us to be there for them in their worst moments is a flawed system. It fails to meet the needs of both faculty members and students, and in the long term, it endangers the goal of better serving students affected by sexual violence.

Nondisclosure Agreements Silence Survivors Of Sexual Violence

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column (here). Sheila Liming is an assistant professor of English at the University of North Dakota, where she teaches classes on American literature, theory and media history. Her public writing has appeared in venues like The Atlantic, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The Silencing of Sexual Violence Survivors

Back when I was a freshman in college many years ago, something happened. This something involved someone who was a member of my college’s faculty and me, and it resulted in my filing a complaint relating to allegations of sexual assault. But now, 15 years later, I am compelled to rely on those kinds of ambiguous nouns — something and someone — in lieu of specifics. At the behest of college administrators and representatives, I signed a nondisclosure agreement that prevents me from sharing anything more specific about that something and that someone.

At the time, I understood my silence to be a necessary cost levied in exchange for protection and support. I brought my complaint to a trusted faculty member who, in turn, forwarded it to the appropriate administrator. That administrator then told me that I had two options. I could take my complaint to the police, thereby exposing myself to a public trial, newspaper reporters’ inquiries and the scrutiny of our entire college-town community. Or I could let the college handle the investigation, as long as I was willing to aid that investigation by keeping contractually quiet.

I was 18 years old, living more than 1,000 miles from home. Save for that one trusted faculty member, I had not told anyone about the something, not even my roommate or my parents. So I agreed to a private, internal investigation and signed the nondisclosure agreement — before speaking to a lawyer, before receiving any impartial advice and before having the opportunity to tell my story to anyone who might have been in a position to offer me support.

What Are NDAs?

Nondisclosure agreements — or NDAs — are legal agreements that are employed with the aim of protecting sensitive information. In business, “sensitive information” may amount to trade secrets or specific details about a product. In higher education, colleges and universities have historically turned to NDAs when investigating allegations of sexual violence or misconduct.

NDAs typically mandate that both parties involved in the complaint remain silent so as to avoid impeding a college’s investigation (which sometimes includes the gathering of witness testimony). And in order to further discourage those involved from speaking, NDAs often specify that financial penalties and personal liability are likely to result if either party breaks the agreement. (See, for example, The Washington Post’s coverage of the subject in the context of former presidential candidate Herman Cain.)

But in recent years, critics of the practice have pointed out that such confidentiality agreements stifle student speech and prevent victims — be they the accusers or the accused — from speaking out and sharing their sides of the story. What’s more, as a 2014 Inside Higher Ed article explains, NDAs place comprehensive bans on speech that extend beyond investigative proceedings and remain in effect long after the details of a case have gone public.

That means that victims of sexual violence are unable to shape the narrative that gets told and retold about them — instead, they are held hostage by the whims of gossip and hearsay. This situation has prompted some people to ask whether there might be such a thing as too much confidentiality, since, as one expert explains in the Inside Higher Ed article, “Colleges and universities rarely if ever intervene to correct the public record — even if they were to obtain the consent of both parties.”

Citing those same concerns, in addition to mounting public pressure, some colleges and universities have recently moved to discontinue the practice of requiring NDAs for those people wishing to file complaints of sexual violence or misconduct. American University, for instance, announced last year that it would no longer require students to sign them when filing complaints of misconduct against other students.

But as a more recent series of articles in The Guardian points out, NDAs are particularly common — and thus particularly pernicious — where student complaints against faculty or staff members are concerned. In such cases, NDAs “allow alleged perpetrators to move to other institutions where they could offend again,” thus “masking” the very prevalence of issues of harassment, violence or misconduct — all in the name of confidentiality.

What to Know and What to Do

What all higher education professionals must understand, then, is that such practices governing confidentiality are still very much the norm today. Most institutions still rely on them, which is why it is important that faculty and staff members read and acquaint themselves with institutional policies regarding confidentiality and voluntary disclosure. But, even more important, they need to take an active role in communicating their understandings of those policies to students.

I am not saying that folks in higher education need to memorize their campus’s policies and approach all interactions armed with chapter and verse. Rather, now a faculty member myself, I am arguing in favor of a heightened awareness that may permit university professionals to engage candidly and responsibly with student victims. If a student approaches you with the expectation of confidentiality, you need to inform that person of your ability to listen and, perhaps, act in confidence.

For example, if you hail from one of the many professional disciplines that make you subject to mandatory reporting laws (like law, medicine or social work), or if you serve in the capacity of a campus security authority — which, under Title IX, may also require you to report — you need to be honest in explaining that you may be unable to comply with a student’s wishes regarding confidentiality. A colleague at my institution’s law school recently told me that she was thinking of putting a sign on her door to declare her status as a mandatory reporter so that students would be able to consider their options before approaching her. Similarly, if you know that official student complaints on your campus are likely to be met with secrecy in the form of compulsory nondisclosure agreements, you must be up front and explain as much to a student beforehand.

Here’s why a willingness to be both honest and informed matters: what followed my decision to sign that NDA some 15 years ago were, frankly, the worst four months of my life. I was removed from the course that I was taking with the faculty member in question and instead enrolled in an independent study course, conducted by another faculty adviser who had no experience in the topic and little direct interest in overseeing my studies anyway.

Meanwhile, my absence in the class had not gone unnoticed, and rumors proliferated — rumors that I was contractually bound to accept with good grace since I was not allowed to talk about what had happened. The administrator who had dealt with my case had warned me that my violating the NDA “could compromise the investigation or could violate someone’s privacy and expose me and the college to liability.” Those were not my college administrator’s exact words, but they are the words of confidentiality agreements used by higher education institutions today.

There are alternatives, though. American University, for instance, now favors a confidentiality agreement that includes a First Amendment rights statement. The statement is designed to assure victims that confidentiality is the responsibility of their university but not necessarily required by them.

Preventing sexual violence and misconduct on college campuses requires a sincere commitment to acknowledging that sexual violence and misconduct do indeed happen — that they have been happening for some time now, that they are happening right now. Nondisclosure and confidentiality agreements have historically helped to keep us, as university professionals, from acknowledging that. Yet in order to imagine better, fairer alternatives to NDAs, we must start by facing the facts concerning their ubiquity and prevalence on our own campuses.

A Call For Flexible Name-Change Policies For Trans Students

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Katriel Paige is a nonbinary professional in the field of web usability, having gone through a M.A. in intercultural communication in international business at the University of Surrey in Great Britain and a B.A. at the University of Delaware. They like Japanese animation and are interested in media studies and folklore.

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Thanks to mainstream media, it seems that the sole concern for transgender individuals these days is navigating public restrooms and other public spaces. But far more issues impede upon trans people’s well-being and livelihood.

A major concern for trans people today is the process of legally changing one’s name, as well as one’s gender marker, on official records. People change their names for a multitude of reasons, no matter their gender identity. For transgender and genderqueer people, like anyone else, changing one’s name is an important part of their own recognition of their identity. But because names are often associated with being male- or female-sounding, changing a name to suit one’s gender identification is an important part of the person telling others how they wish to be treated and identified. A transgender woman may be named Lawrence at birth but go by Elle, Elly or Lisa — keeping the initial sound intact, but signaling to others that she is a woman and should be recognized as such.

Changing one’s name in the United States, however, requires money and time. If the change does not coincide with a new legal family status (such as a birth, marriage or divorce), then that means going through the courts for a name change order. That process can take months and cost $500 or even more between court fees, publication fees and associated costs. There are legal aid clinics expressly for LGBTQ people that help in the matter of filing a name change court order in several metropolitan areas, including Chicago and Baltimore. But those clinics often have waiting lists, and it can take a long time to get assistance even if a person qualifies for aid.

I’d like to address two issues in the essay regarding name changes for transgender and genderqueer students. Both come down to legal requirements and the availability of money.

First and most important, trans and genderqueer students may not have the financial means to afford the court order process to change their names legally. Students from poor or working-class families and students of color are probably disproportionately affected by this barrier to transitioning.

Also, depending on the court and locality, the student may have to appear in court in person. That requires taking time to make the court date and appointment, and it also poses the real threat of harassment. Even though the court system is supposed to be impartial, in some instances, clerks and judges have assumed that the person changing their name is doing so to defraud others. In the case of transgender and genderqueer students, that assumption can be unjustly magnified.

At many colleges and universities, students are supposed to be able to use a nickname, but that is not always the case for trans or genderqueer students. Again the assumption is that the student is attempting to trick others — the very motivation cited as the core of “trans panic” murder defenses. The skepticism trans and genderqueer students face is inherently dangerous. Cisgender students are often able to record a nickname at least during lectures, but different higher education institutions have different nickname/alternate name policies. Legal names are also often tied in with official student records, and that can create issues when it comes to recording grades as well as issuing graduation clearances and names on degrees.

The fact that different institutions have different policies regarding names and records is compounded if a student, for example, transfers between a community college and a university. They might be able to go by their nickname and change their records to their preferred name without having to go through a legal name change at the community college, but they may be forced to “deadname” themselves — going by their name assigned at birth — at the university, potentially outing themselves as a different gender than what they identify as.

Colleges and universities should recognize that trans and genderqueer students may not be able to legally change their names; they should respect the name a student goes by while in school, even if not recognized by law. Many universities do have name change procedures for chosen names in place, such as the City University of New York system, the University of Colorado Boulder and others, as seen via the Campus Pride Trans Policy Clearinghouse.

My second concern is that many students are assumed to have some amount of family contribution toward their university education. This is evidenced by the FAFSA process, in which undergraduates are assumed to have family support when calculating student aid eligibility, while postgraduates are assumed to be financially independent. Yet because of family rejection or family strain due to relatives’ transphobic bias, many undergraduate trans and genderqueer students may lack such family support. Some students perceive, or have explicitly been warned, that they will lose their family’s support if they come out as trans or begin transitioning.

Further, there may not even be a home to return to during school breaks or after graduation. This means that even if they do manage to go through the legal process of changing their name, the student may run into difficulties with continuing to pay for their education. Scholarships and financial aid might also be awarded to the name at birth and not the name the student goes by, causing financial difficulty and issues with records if nicknames and legal names are not recorded, or if a legal name change is still in process — and therefore in limbo.

Universities should recognize that while some trans and genderqueer students are financially able to attend college, it may be at great personal cost. They should not further punish trans students, especially those who are unable to afford a legal name change, by exclusively recognizing their legal name and gender. A trans student’s chosen name should be honored just as a cisgender student’s nickname is (Liz instead of Elizabeth). They should ensure that students are respected in academe and not force students to decide between wider recognition of their identity or their ability to receive an education in the first place.

How Administrators Can Support Trans Students And Faculty

rachel-mckinnon-profileNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Rachel McKinnon is an assistant professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston. Her research primarily focuses on epistemology, philosophy of language, metaphysics, and feminism and gender issues, particularly transgender issues. She has a 2015 book, The Norms of Assertion: Truth, Lies, and Warrant, and is currently working on her second book, Things We Do With Assertions.

Gender Transitions in Academe, Part I

In this and future essays, I will offer advice on how faculty and staff members, departmental leaders, and senior administrators can handle the gender transition of an undergraduate or graduate student, staff member, or faculty member so that it can be as smooth as possible for everyone involved.

You may have noticed that trans* issues are becoming increasingly common in the media. (As is largely common convention, I use the asterisk to indicate broad inclusion in whom we describe under the trans* umbrella.) In fact, it’s at a point where it’s hard to miss. This increased visibility is good news, on the whole, as it’s leading to an increased understanding of the difficulties of trans* persons, and to an increased awareness of the presence of trans* people. The fact is that we’re not that rare. One of the benefits of this visibility and understanding is that more trans* people are realizing that transitioning is more possible now than ever before. But it’s far from easy, and I will discuss some ways to continue these positive trends.

In my work, I specialize in the relationship between knowledge and what we say to one another. However, I also do a significant amount of work on gender and gender identity, focusing particularly on trans* issues. Some of that work includes posts such as this where I write about trans* lives in academia. Being a trans* person in higher education, who works on trans* issues, gives me a good perspective from which to offer advice. For example, I have written about what it’s like to transition while teaching and my decision to come out to my classes, and about some special problems that trans* people face on the academic job market.

I am a lesbian trans woman, and I transitioned right at the end of my Ph.D. training. Some people in my department knew before my dissertation defense, but I chose to come out to everyone a few days after my defense. Looking back, it’s a little humorous that I sent out one of the batch emails (with an attached letter explaining my transition plans) on April 1: a few people wondered whether it was an elaborate April Fool’s joke. My transition was mostly, though certainly not entirely, smooth. I happily received a tenure-track job offer and a prestigious postdoc shortly thereafter. I decided to take a postdoc year partly for some transition-related issues, such as finalizing documents with the correct sex/gender information, which I will discuss in a future essay.

In this piece, I want to address what college administrators in particular can do to help students and faculty navigate their gender transition. Administration-level changes are especially important. They set the tone for students and employees. They also carry a lot of force, impacting the whole institution rather than just a department.

First and foremost, it is paramount that university administrators put into place robust institutional human-rights policies that explicitly protect people from discrimination and harassment based on gender identity and gender expression. The latter protects more than just transgender persons.

Gender identity refers to the gender that a person is, regardless of what they were assigned at birth. (I am increasingly moving away from “identifies as” language. Trans women are women — they do not merely “identify as” women.) Gender expression refers to the various ways that we show or signal our gender to others: our clothes, mannerisms, makeup, hair and so on. While a butch dyke woman’s gender identity may be that of a woman, she may express her gender in nonheteronormative ways such as wearing a button-down shirt and tie.

Thus, we want robust policy protections so that she can do this while free from harassment or discrimination. That the College of Charleston has explicit antidiscrimination and antiharassment policies including gender identity and expression was a significant part of my accepting the position. So I especially applaud them on this, and I recommend their policy as one to emulate. This is particularly important in cities, states and a country without robust antidiscrimination policies for trans* persons. Remember, in most jurisdictions in the America, it’s entirely legal to fire a trans* person for being trans*.

Second, administrations need to have a posted policy on gender identity and expression and bathroom use. In many jurisdictions in the United States and Canada, people are legally — and certainly morally — permitted to use whatever bathroom best matches their gender identity. This choice is up to the people themselves, and no individual or organization should police gender. Trans* people are best situated to determine which bathroom they feel safest using and that is most appropriate for their identity and personal needs. And this decision may change over time during their transition: early on, they may not feel comfortable changing the bathrooms they use, but later on, they might. Increasingly in the United States, the departments of Justice, Education and Labor (and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) have all adopted trans-inclusive policies and directives.

Perhaps the common reason cited to oppose trans-inclusive bathroom policies is that this will give license to (cisgender) men to start entering women’s bathroom spaces for purposes other than using the bathroom for its intended purposes. Let me say that this fear is unfounded and deeply stigmatizing. We refer to this as the “predator myth.” An alternate policy is to begin designating gender-neutral bathrooms that anyone can use. However, creating a single (or a small number) of such bathrooms and then requiring trans* people to use them (and not to use gender-restricted multistall bathrooms) isn’t acceptable, since that is instating a “separate but equal” policy, which is both unethical and illegal.

Third, colleges and universities should, as much as legally possible, make it easy for students or employees to change their official name. Sometimes we refer to this as someone’s “preferred” name. Unfortunately, in many jurisdictions, an official, legal name change can be prohibitively expensive, burdensome or simply impossible. Many times, it depends on the goodwill of a local judge, who may not be trans* friendly in their decisions to grant name changes. In such a case, people often require legal representation, which isn’t cheap.

So, one way around this is for a college to have a relatively easy name-change policy that doesn’t require official documentation such as a court order or legal name change. For example, at the institution where I received my Ph.D., the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, one need only fill out a form and have it signed by a commissioner of oaths (like a notary public), who is available to students and employees on campus for free. Colleges and universities can retain the student/employee’s “legal” name on record but use their preferred name for all communications and documents, such as degrees.

In my next essay, I will offer advice for improving department-level policies to best support transgender colleagues, particularly those who decide to transition.