Although co-ed colleges and universities are evaluating their policies to ensure that admissions practices do not discriminate against transgender and gender-nonconforming students, the challenge for women’s colleges is to become more inclusive while retaining the unique environment that empowers women.
“Mills College has been a trailblazer on issues related to gender for many years, so it made sense to become the first women’s college to adopt a policy to admit students who were born male but [identify] as female,” says Chinyere Oparah, PhD, provost and dean of faculty at Mills.
[Above: Students gather for Mills College’s convocation.]
The process to define an admissions policy that addressed transgender and gender-fluid applicants began in 2010. Mills created a task force to identify the needs and concerns of such students and to establish the support system they would need to be successful, says Oparah.
The change in the admissions policy, however, was not just about the wording on the college’s application. “We needed to know how to improve the campus and academic experience to make sure all students felt welcome and included,” says Oparah.
The task force’s 2013 report, “Mills College Report on Inclusion of Transgender and Gender Fluid Students Best Practices, Assessment and Recommendations,” presented a holistic plan that identified campus-wide steps to create an inclusive environment for these students. Asking them to identify preferred gender pronouns, creating dedicated spaces for them and other members of the LGBTQ+ community, and addressing gender identity issues in faculty meetings, student seminars, and community presentations are now part of Mills’ approach to ensuring that transgender and gender-fluid students feel like valued members of the campus community.
The subsequent admissions policy — adopted in May 2014 — allows applications from students who self-identify as women; this includes those born female or male who identify as a woman as well as individuals born female who do not identify with either gender.
Oparah believes that a policy that focuses on student applicants who identify as female at the time of admission regardless of their gender at birth ensures a student body that is committed to and understands gender oppression from a female perspective.
This approach differs from Mills’ effort in 1990 to expand admission to include male students. At that time, a student-led protest resulted in a reversal of the decision to become co-ed.
“The wording of the policy is in keeping with our identity as a women’s college,” Oparah explains, adding that Mills had the full support of faculty and students in implementing the recent change to the admissions policy.
Of all Mills graduates in May 2018 — the first class admitted under the 2014 policy — Oparah says 6 percent identified as transgender. “We have no way to know if the change … attracted more applications from transgender students, but we do know that all students are comfortable expressing their gender identity,” she says.
“We recognize that gender is a spectrum and can change over time,” Oparah adds. For example, if a student who identifies as female at the time of admission transitions to identify as male while at Mills, that individual can still complete their education at the school. “If you are admitted to Mills,” she says, “you graduate from Mills.”
Another early adopter of a trans-inclusive policy is Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga. The college has vocally supported trans and gender-nonconforming students since 2010, but in May 2015, its board of trustees voted to add “gender expression” and “gender identity” to the institution’s statement of nondiscrimination with regard to the admission of students, says Danita Knight, vice president for communications and marketing.
Women’s colleges provide many benefits to their students; for those who are transgender or gender-fluid, these are often even more extensive. Knight says these include a safe and supportive environment dedicated to the empowerment of marginalized populations and connections to students, faculty, staff, and alum networks that are committed to supporting diversity and engaging in intellectual challenges.
There are also benefits for the colleges. “At Agnes Scott, we are preparing our students to lead in a global society,” Knight says. “Welcoming transgender and gender-nonconforming students into our community enhances our diverse learning environment with different perspectives and experiences that enrich discussions and learning about intersectionality, which is important in every aspect of leadership.”
Like Mills, Agnes Scott took the lead on evaluating the overall student experience on campus at the same time it adopted the new admissions policy. As a result, the college encourages students, staff, and faculty to share their preferred pronouns, provides access to a variety of housing options, and created gender-neutral bathrooms and locker rooms.
“The college adopted a name-change policy and allows students to note their preferred names in their academic records,” explains Knight. “They may request that external communications not include their preferred name or that communications not be sent to their home addresses.”
Although the campus is a safe place for trans and gender-fluid students, Agnes Scott staff discuss with students safety plans and different levels of sensitivity and understanding that they may encounter while engaging in global or cross-cultural experiences.
“We are also committed to providing affordable on- and off-campus healthcare and counseling for students in the various phases of transition,” Knight explains. “Our student health insurance has a provision for gender reassignment treatment — specifically surgical, hormone replacement therapy, and counseling.”
At Mills, Oparah says feedback from students, faculty, and parents has been positive. “We want to normalize self-identity and respect it so we can focus on academics, not gender oppression,” she says.
And efforts by Mills are not going unnoticed, Oparah points out. “At an event for admitted students, I had a group of parents tell me that they wondered how gender identity played out in practice,” she says. One parent told her that when she saw that every email from Mills included a note in the signature line identifying preferred pronouns, she knew the college’s commitment was genuine.
Any type of change has its advocates and opponents, but Knight says the inclusion of transgender applicants has been an evolution. “Our students are open, forward-thinking, and social-justice oriented, and they are committed to learning about global issues and advocating for equal rights for everyone,” she says. “Some students and alums want to maintain the exclusivity and traditions of women-only spaces, while others view this as a time to implement our mission statement to think deeply, live honorably, and engage in the intellectual and social challenges of our time.”
Sheryl S. Jackson is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article ran in our November 2018 issue.