Field Notes: Starting points: A multifaceted approach to becoming a trans-inclusive campus

"Field Notes" is an occasional Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at

by Ewa Nowicki, Registrar at Amherst College. For further information on this topic, please attend Ewa’s presentation on best practices and change management in support of trans students at AACRAO’s 104th annual meeting in Orlando. Ewa’s pronouns are she/her/hers.

Trans and non-binary people have always been on our campuses. Meanwhile binary constructs have been the standard throughout higher education--beyond the need to comply with federal reporting. Student information systems (SIS), reports, and documents assume not only that all of our community members have binary gender identities, but that those identities align with that which individuals have been assigned at birth. But as student populations change, institutions must learn to support communities that have grown up with the concept of gender as a​spectrum. Now is the time for institutions to adapt so that all of the current and future members​ of our learning communities feel safe, supported, and able to thrive academically and personally on our campuses.

Creating trans inclusive policy and practice means that we must challenge notions of how we collect, retain, and report data. Policy reform may be challenging because of reporting requirements, institutional climate, or allocated resources for staff and systems. The brevity of this article restricts comprehensive coverage of the needs of trans communities in higher education, but it aims to serve as an introduction to practices which may influence a sense of inclusivity. Not all of the below suggestions will work everywhere, but several can be implemented anywhere. Members of academic communities should have the opportunity to thrive living and learning as their most authentic selves, and adapting our approach to record retention is an important step towards a more inclusive campus.  

Start small

Some institutions inadvertently conflate the terms ​sex​ and ​gender​. This is especially important to clarify for administrators responsible for reporting sex assigned at birth. Ensure that websites, bulletins, reports, forms, and SIS are clear when referring to or asking for sex or gender identity information. Most students do not understand how sex assigned at birth affects financial aid, but clarity in data retention is ​very important for trans people who must register for selective service in order to receive aid​. Create simple and public procedures for updating sex markers in SIS to ensure that financial aid is not interrupted when student record information changes. Consider chosen name and gender identity as any other part of a secure student record. Do not assume that this information should be made public, nor that all students understand what directory information restrictions mean for their own personal data.  

Simple ways of signaling a supportive environment for trans people include: adding pronouns in email signatures and on business cards, utilizing chosen names in correspondence in place of gendered salutations, adding gender neutral language such as “they” or “the student” to websites & bulletins, modeling practices such as introducing oneself with pronouns, posting signage in offices that signal safe and supportive spaces, knowing where to direct trans people for additional resources or support on or off campus, maintaining websites which explain how to restrict directory information, and clarifying which offices have access to legal name and sex data.

Education and research

Trans people have different needs than other underrepresented minority groups. An expectation that our trans students should be responsible for informing institutions of best practices places an unjust and often unmanageable burden on an already marginalized community. The assumption that institutions need only act if students demand inclusive policies sends a message that at the least we are othering the trans community, and at the worst that we are unprepared to make their uninhibited success a priority on our campuses.  

Administrators should be proactive with self-education, and then begin dialogue with members of trans communities in order to develop inclusive policies and procedures. Tools like the model​ policy for supporting trans students created by the ​ ​National Center for Transgender Equality​ and GLSEN​ can easily be adapted to institutions of higher education. ​Lambda Legal​’s resources specifically address the needs of ​transgender college students​ and advises students to rely upon FERPA compliance for protection. Lambda Legal also shares ​best practices for supporting trans students for administrators adapted from the ​Consortium of Higher Education LGBTQ​ Resource Professionals​. Reading about trans people in ​higher education​ and the need for trans​ inclusive student records​ can help alleviate some of the burden of explanation from our students.

Leverage technology

An ideal SIS allows for legal name and sex assigned at birth to be retained on record and used for reporting; then chosen name, self-identified pronouns, and gender identity to be utilized in Learning Management Systems (LMS), course rosters, and email addresses. For institutions that do not have such systems in place, it is extremely important to create clear instructions on how individuals may or may not change name displays on documents, SIS, or LMS. Real time updates from self-service student portal entry to the institution’s SIS and LMS are critical so that a lag in data updates does not out an individual. Consult Campus Pride​ to research how other institutions maintain legal and self-identified data, or allow for chosen name to appear on student ID cards, diplomas, and transcripts.

If it is not possible to update SIS, be aware that external systems such as the Common Application​ are already collecting gender identity data. Most applicants assume that data will be retained by institutions utilizing the application. For institutions with SIS or LMS restrictions, there are still alternatives to supporting trans people. If SIS cannot retain chosen name or gender identity alongside legal name and sex markers, administrators should investigate if chosen name may appear as a part of a student’s email address. Some institutions send letters to faculty on a student’s behalf in order to explain why a record does not match the name that they will use in class or on assignments. When administors face systemic restrictions but provide this additional support, some of the burden of self-identifying to faculty is lifted from students.

Collegiate collaboration

Holistically approaching policy revision must involve cross-campus collaboration. Without staff, faculty, and student input, policy will lack practical knowledge of campus life, and lived experiences may be inadvertently ignored. Policy should should not just touch on record retention, but ​how ​names are used around campus. Work together with members of your campus community to develop policies that make it clear how legal name and/or chosen name appears within SIS, who has access to that information, what to expect when issued a transcript or diploma, or how a name appears on a course roster or directory. Once those policies have been updated, and practices are clear, publish that information on websites and bulletins so that everyone has an understanding of how their personal data is retained. Creating a culture of transparent policies and explaining what can and cannot be changed in the student record will support the development of inclusive learning spaces for all.  

AACRAO 2018 Annual Meeting attendees, join in this discussion at Ewa Nowicki's Wednesday morning session on best practices and change management in support of trans studentsand also see Monday's session "Beyond Pronouns and Policy: Moving Towards Trans-Inclusive Practices," led by Lauren Bennett and Dr. Cindy Ann Kilgo from the University of Alabama.