Preferred name: a reflection of campus culture at the University of Minnesota, Morris

"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 Judy R. Korn, Registrar, University of Minnesota, Morris

Before joining the Office of the Registrar team a number of years ago, I served as a campus writer, and I was honored to tell many student stories. One spring, I asked a few graduating seniors to reflect on their University of Minnesota, Morris experience beginning with their first days on campus. One student’s recollection about her name continues to resonate in my memory. It went something like this…

I was freaked out! Admissions brochures claimed Morris was a “first name” campus, but I didn’t really know what that meant when I arrived. The first time a professor greeted me by name as we passed on the mall, I almost jumped out of my skin. Coming from a large high school and city, I didn’t actually expect people to know me by name at college, but I got used to it, and I liked it. It made me feel like I belonged.

Whether we serve intentionally small, residential universities like Morris or large, national research institutions or any size in between, we want our students to belong to our campus communities. Knowing and addressing students by their preferred name builds relationships and facilitates engagement.  When a recent software upgrade made it possible for Morris students to self-manage preferred names within our student information system, we celebrated the realization of a long-awaited goal that reflects and supports our campus culture.

But soon after preferred name implementation, stories began surfacing that caused concern.

Preferred name missteps

We heard about confusion. Students who submitted preferred names via Admissions, Residential Life, or Student Activities systems expected faculty and advisers to know their preferred names, too, but class and advising rosters are generated through the student records system.

We heard about bewilderment. Advisers and instructors formed relationships with their students based on preferred names learned through their advising and class rosters. But degree audits and many student reports were being built on primary (or legal) names.  So, when advisers and instructors reviewed students’ degree audits or major/minor lists, they encountered names they didn’t recognize.

And, we heard about pain, especially in regard to our transgender students. While preferred names populated class and advising rosters, the campus identification card, as another example to those shared above, still clearly proclaimed primary name. For some students, the necessity of showing an ID card at the library or Business Office profoundly impacted their life on the Morris campus.

Action on two fronts

Morris is known for an active, engaged student body, and our students were at their best as they lobbied for a change to the campus ID card. In particular, they asked that a submitted preferred name appear with the student identification number and photo rather than the primary name. Students began at the top with our Chancellor and worked their way to Finance and Facilities, which oversees the Business Office ID card process. Their concerns were received with compassion and action at every level. After investigating procedures at other institutions, Morris changed its practice to printing the preferred name on the card. The student ID number is the official element, and the photo confirms the owner.

Morris is also known as a collaborative campus, and we heavily drew on that characteristic to assemble a wide range of student service representatives to address the limitations of our systems and improve our preferred name practices. We included student voices, too, as we formed our plan.

Information Technology, Admissions, Student Activities, and Residential Life investigated the submission of preferred names and the sharing of data between systems, and they devised plans for improvement and upgrades.

Financial Aid and the Business Office identified situations in which a primary name must be used for various processes. They also considered how their processes might be respectfully shaped for those who are not known by their primary names on campus.

Representatives from the Equity, Diversity, and Intercultural Programs (EDI), which serves as the home for LGBTQIA2S+ LIFE, brought best practices to our conversations as we specifically addressed the needs of our transgender students.

We considered the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education Title Nine “Dear Colleague” letter dated May 13, 2016, and based our collective decisions on upholding the “significant guidance” shared in the document. As stated in the letter, we wish to “create and sustain inclusive, supportive, safe, and nondiscriminatory communities for all students,” at Morris. (Read the "Dear Colleague" letter and read AACRAO's response to the DC letter.)

With deep gratitude for institutions across the nation that led the way, we reviewed “name statements” penned and approved by other campuses, and then we articulated our own. Student Affairs played a major role as we balanced the legitimate use of a preferred name with a warning against inappropriate student conduct. For now, we’ve labeled the statement as a “working” document as the Morris campus awaits the opportunity to endorse a Universitywide statement.

Through the Systemwide Registrars Council (SRC), Morris partnered with the University’s other four campuses (Crookston, Duluth, Rochester, and Twin Cities) to identify and orchestrate improvements to student records reporting and degree audit systems.

And, we determined that student communications regarding preferred and primary names required immediate attention. We created a website, linked to student-facing pages, that clearly describes when and where Morris can and cannot use a preferred name. It indicates the limitations of some systems. It addresses unrealizable expectations. As an example, students cannot submit a preferred name but request that a primary name be used for parent communications. The system does not have the flexibility to record variations. The web page also includes information for students who may wish to legally change their name as well as name suppression options.

Progress check

Morris has made significant progress in a relatively short time, but there is more work to be done. Our preferred name procedures are beginning to fall in place for students, so next we will review the faculty and staff process and determine if it reflects the needs of our campus community. We must also establish a means for students, faculty, and staff to submit pronouns and identify a process to disseminate that information. And in partnership with the SRC and various campus organizations, Morris will continue to lobby for a University of Minnesota systemwide name and pronoun statement.

The implementation of a preferred name process at Morris was not perfect, but our response to missteps speaks to our campus culture as well.  We pulled together to make a difference for our students. In doing so, we modeled collaboration, celebrated diversity, and created community…and we know each other by name.