University Senate supportive of pronoun policy before May vote

The first full University Senate discussion of the gender identity and expression policy will send the proposal to a vote in May.

Dylan Anderson

The full University Senate discussed a proposed policy on gender identity and expression for the first time in anticipation of voting on the policy at the May meeting.

The latest draft of the policy, titled Equity and Access: Gender Identity, Gender Expression, Names and Pronouns, was presented to the University Senate on Thursday and primarily received vocal support. After more than a year of consultation across University governance, the meeting was among the final discussions before the Senate votes on the policy for the first time in May. A two-thirds majority is required for passage. 

Tina Marisam, director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, said in the meeting the policy is needed to clearly express the University of Minnesota’s commitment to providing a safe and welcoming environment to all students. She said the proposal provides guidance to the University community about gender identities and expression.

Marisam said a significant amount of feedback the office received over the last year was concern about potential discipline for accidental misgendering.

Last semester, University senior Luna Zeidner said they were misgendered on the first day of class. Feeling unsafe from potential harassment, they dropped the course.

Zeidner attended the meeting with the group Women for Political Change and said the proposed gender identity policy would show transgender students they have the right to speak up.

“This is about protection from harassment, not about getting fired,” Zeidner said in the meeting.

An early draft of the policy included a section outlining potential discipline for someone engaging in discrimination, harassment and retaliation related to gender identity or expression. This was removed from the policy in January.

Joseph Konstan, former Faculty Consultative Committee chair involved in the policy’s consultative process, said local and national media coverage focused on punitive language. A Star Tribune article from last July suggested using the wrong pronoun could become a fireable offense. He said this diverted attention from the intended message.

The policy is meant to reinforce the general expectation of respect for everyone on campus, Marisam said at the meeting.

University Senator Ian Ringgenberg said the policy may make some people uncomfortable.

“If we’re really trying to change our culture on campus, if we’re really trying to push the balance of justice and equity, we’re going to make some people uncomfortable along the way,” Ringgenberg said at the meeting.

Saby Labor, director of the Gender and Sexuality Center for Queer and Trans Life, said in the meeting that about 16 percent of undergraduate students identify with a sexual orientation other than heterosexual — a higher proportion than the adult population in the state and nationwide. Over 2 percent of undergraduate students at the University identify as transgender, gender non-conforming or genderqueer.  

Since September 2017, students have been able to enter pronoun preferences and gender identity in MyU, Labor said at the meeting. In the first year, nearly 8,600 students entered such information. Some senators said they wish the MyU system would continuously update and alert instructors of changes.

Konstan said the system is a good idea, but won’t entirely address some of the concerns.

“This isn’t an impersonal thing,” Konstan said. “You want to encourage a student, whether it is a change in pronoun, or a change in name or anything else, to actually talk to the people they interact with and let them know.” 

Konstan said the policy is meant as an aspirational statement about the University community’s values, not as one to punish people for making mistakes.

“A good-natured mistake is very different from a persistent unwillingness to learn,” Konstan said. “If you really believe and have internalized that a person has the right to be called as they choose, then if you make a mistake, you do feel sorry.”