US Colleges Take Sides on Gender-Neutral Language

On campuses across the country, student groups and faculty members are challenging traditional concepts of gender with the language they use on syllabi and college websites.

At odds with these efforts are other students — and administrators, on their behalf — who argue that freedom of speech is impinged upon by policies and guidelines that recommend against or outright ban the use of certain words.

If college is a place where students are introduced to new ideas and concepts, and where they are encouraged to debate their opinions, then why are such debates becoming headlines?

Inclusivity Guides Spark Controversy

Earlier this year, the Office of Community, Equity and Diversity at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) developed a Bias-Free Language Guide to encourage inclusiveness on campus. Among the many issues that the guide addressed were the language used to identify gender identity and the lack of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus.

The guide suggested that the gender of a person only be specified “if relevant and/or necessary for discussion”; it also recommended avoiding gender-stereotyping, such as assuming a secretary is a “she” or a professor is “he” based only on the title of the position.

Following the controversial reception of the guide, it was removed from the institution’s website, and the president of the university, Mark W. Huddleston, issued a statement that distanced UNH from the ideas expressed in the guide and promoted the importance of free speech on campus.

In the statement, Huddleston said, “While individuals on our campus have every right to express themselves, I want to make it absolutely clear that the views expressed in [the] guide are NOT the policy of the University of New Hampshire,” and took particular issue with the fact that the term “American” had been identified as problematic. According to the guide, “North Americans often use ‘American,’ which usually, depending on the context, fails to recognize South America.”

A similar controversy erupted at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville when the Office for Diversity and Inclusion also posted a guide of suggested pronoun usage on the university’s website. The guide was removed, and Rickey Hall, Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion, issued a statement clarifying that the article released on gender-neutral pronouns “was offered as a resource — not as a policy or mandate — to our campus community on inclusive practices” (original emphasis).

Individual course syllabi are not above scrutiny, as two graduate instructors and a professor in the Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies Department at Washington State University discovered recently when their documents came under attack in the media. The syllabi attempted to discourage students from using offensive language during class discussions and in assignments. They cautioned: “Use of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, classist, or generally offensive language in class … will not be tolerated. This includes ‘The Man,’ ‘Colored People,’ ‘Illegals/Illegal Aliens,’ ‘Tranny,’ and so on — or referring to women/men as females or males.”

The university responded quickly, issuing a statement that assured the public that administrators were “working with these faculty members to clarify, and in some cases modify, course policies to ensure that students’ free speech rights are recognized and protected.”

Universities Recognize Several Gender Identities

While many university administrators seem hesitant to move beyond the traditional, narrow definitions of gender, some schools are starting to formally recognize students’ preferences regarding their gender identities — in part by acknowledging that students don’t necessarily want to check male or female on their enrollment forms.

Harvard recently announced that it would offer students the option to indicate their preferred gender pronouns, including “ze” and “hir” in addition to she/her and he/him. While students will still be assigned to housing based on traditional male/female designations, the new system will allow students to self-identify outside of those norms during other interactions on campus.

Likewise, students attending the various University of California campuses now have the option to choose among six gender identities: male, female, trans male, trans female, gender queer/gender nonconforming, and different identity. These designations are optional on forms students are required to complete and are meant to help each university better understand its student body.

Many Reject Gender-Neutral Language

The backlash against those in academe who are attempting to challenge traditional ideas of gender and language has been severe — both from those who would maintain the status quo, and from those who feel that language choice should not, under any circumstances, be dictated. Even politicians have joined the debate. In Tennessee, for example, the gender pronoun controversy was on the agenda for a state Senate hearing earlier this month. And comments on university websites, articles, and social media reveal the outrage of donors and parents who feel these guides and syllabi are violating students’ fundamental rights to free speech, with particular concern paid to how students are supposed to discuss sensitive subject matter if they aren’t allowed to wrestle with language choices.

While the language guides have been removed from their respective university websites, and syllabi have been edited to reflect students’ rights to free speech, the issue of gender and language in the classroom is one that instructors have to reckon with on a daily basis.

If students are free to say anything they want without regard to others, how do instructors deal with language that incites hate and disregards other students’ right to feel safe in the classroom? Who decides what is acceptable and what is offensive?

Ultimately, the debate concerning gender and language usage poses more questions than it answers. Without clear guidelines to determine what infringes upon some students’ rights, and what is offensive to other students — two sides of the same coin — instructors may find themselves negotiating the uncertain boundary between inclusiveness and autonomy, without any clear sense of where the line separating offensive speech from free speech should be drawn.

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