In 2021, the most widely used college application software, The Common App, updated its application questions focused on sex and gender to include pronouns and preferred name usage. Because of this change, over 900 colleges received accurate information through the application process regarding students’ identities.
Rowan University defines a preferred name as “the name by which a person wishes to be known and to have appear in University systems.” The university also adds that a preferred name is meant to affirm an individual’s gender, culture and other possible aspects of their social identity. This is in contrast to an individual’s legal name, which is defined as the name placed on a person’s legal identification.
The software used to display preferred names is a young concept across many colleges and universities. One of the first campuses to do so was the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 2014.
In 2019, Inside Higher Ed reported that 225 different universities permit students to list their preferred name on various campus records and documents. However, according to an updated study by Campus Pride, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating safer college environments for LGBTQ+ students, this number has risen to at least 790 different institutions in 2023. Of these colleges, 245 of them also allow for preferred pronouns to appear on class rosters.
“This name-change policy, allows them [students] to be called what they want, to be acknowledged by who they are and not by the name they were given at birth if that’s no longer how they identify,” said Dominique Pierson, assistant director of the Rowan University Office of Social Justice, Inclusion and Conflict Resolution (SJICR).
Rowan University originally implemented a preferred name policy in the spring semester of 2016. The policy states that a student’s preferred name will appear on their university ID card, campus directory, housing rosters, grade reports and other documents and systems that do not require the use of a legal name for “legal or business-related reasons,” such as admissions records and tax documents.
Once students submit a preferred name form through Rowan’s Information Resources & Technology department (IRT), the information is processed by IRT and the Rowan Registrar’s office. According to IRT, this process can take up to 72 hours to complete.
“I was in contact when they were re-doing, editing the [preferred name] policy, with the folks at the registrar’s office,” said Tara Ferruci, administrative assistant for SJICR. “They are the key folks that implement all of this information and where students are directed once they fill out that form.”
However, despite efforts by the university, a person’s legal name — often referred to as a person’s “deadname” within the transgender community — can still slip through the cracks to appear on documents.
“I got an email recently saying I was on the Dean’s list and my deadname showed up,” said Kye Binik, a senior law and justice major at Rowan University who first utilized preferred name software upon their enrollment at Rowan. “So, it might be changed on class schedules, that sort of stuff, but anything sort of deeper is not changed… There has to be some sort of software that can kind of catch more than just the surface level.”
These inconsistencies are largely blamed on technology friction between different campus systems and the fact that each university has a different computer system, so common preferred name software can not be replicated across every system.
“There are definitely hiccups,” said Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in conversation with Inside Higher Ed. “There are very different systems on college campuses, and they all don’t speak to each other.”
According to a blog post by Laura Godia, a former analyst in learning technologies and student success, the key to the accurate, beneficial implementation of preferred name software lies within a campus’s technology department.
“The goal of comprehensive preferred name and pronoun support requires institutions to negotiate complex policy, data governance, and technology questions,” Godia wrote. “While these initiatives are often led by other campus leaders, IT leaders should anticipate early, hands-on involvement since campus data and technology are so integral to the process.”
Godia further stated that in order for IT departments to succeed in these challenges, the department needs to be aware of how different on-campus systems integrate with one another in order for preferred name and pronoun functions to be fully functional and seamless within its usage.
For example, this means that technology between Rowan College of Gloucester County and Cooper Medical School of Rowan University should, ideally, be able to communicate personal information regarding a student effectively so that students do not have to go to several different desks in order to have their preferred name displayed on university systems.
Despite the current inconsistencies within many campuses’ preferred name software, students still believe that having this software and similar policies in place is crucial to their academic environment.
“I think its extremely important for people to be recognized by the name that they choose,” Binik said. “And their deadname shouldn’t have to be brought up every single time they’re trying something new and then have to constantly be associated with that name.”
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