In 2013, the Queer Student Association (QSA) of Montana State University (MSU) asked for gender neutral bathrooms. They were given the standard institution response: "This is important and we will get to it."
After seven years of only a policy on the books barring discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation but no real action, the QSA sent two letters – one to the press and one to MSU President Waded Cruzado with five demands:
- Creation and funding of an LGBTQIA specific staff position in the MSU Diversity Awareness Office,
- Gender neutral bathrooms in each building and a gender neutral gym locker room,
- Best practices and use of inclusive language in classrooms,
- Providing ability to use preferred names
- Infrastructure to pair LGBTQIA students in safe and appropriate dorm rooms.
With headlines such as, “Queer students say MSU campus intolerant” in the local papers, MSU got to work to make their campus an inclusive place for all.
“Our response may not have been perfect or work for your campus but this is what we did and how we are seeing it play out,” said presenter Kandi Gresswell, Associate Registrar, MSU.
MSU gets to work
The first thing MSU did was assign a point person to each request. In response to the need for a specific person designated for LGBTQIA students in the MSU Diversity Aware Office, they used funding on hand, created a position, and hired someone just last year.
The bathroom response required signage change that cost less than $5 per sign to purchase. The signs were placed outside single stall bathrooms. While there were at it, they made sure these bathrooms were ADA compliant.
Changing language in the classroom was a bit more challenging but still easily remedied. It required working with faculty to write a policy that was then included in the class syllabus. (Download best practices handout below.)
Because MSU is a part of the larger Montana University System, the preferred name usage change was not an easy process and is still a work in progress. Every change made to one campus system must be made across all campuses. With that in mind, MSU had to implement changes that work for students who attend their campus only. These changes also only apply to students who do not receive Human Resources benefits (i.e. health insurance, retirement savings, etc) from the institution.
A solution at Macalaster College inspired the preferred name usage change in their Banner system. To initiate the process, the student must apply online using their legal name and their student ID number. This application goes to Gresswell who determines the legitimacy of the application. No, you cannot change your name to Big Poppa or add doctor before completing your PhD.
Because these are not legal name changes, once a preferred name is accepted, the students are told where their legal name will appear and where their chosen name will appear. This is imperative as you must manage expectations and also consider confidentiality. Not all students have come out to their parents. In other words, although they may request a name change on campus, they may not want it to appear in the graduation ceremony program or letters sent home. Students also receive a new student CAT card paid for by the MSU Access office.
“You don’t know what you don’t know until after you need to know it,” explained Gresswell as she described the pilot program. These name change students sign an agreement requiring them to test institution systems so the institution can know what works and what does not. For example, the students receiving checks paid to their chosen name were not able to deposit checks into their bank accounts with their legal names. The fix? Be sure to set up direct deposit.
The response to the fifth demand is the only one that begins at the admissions office with the rooming preference application. Students indicate their preference when applying for rooms. A point person then coordinates rooming with gender identity in mind.
Taking it a step further
MSU took things further than just meeting the five demands of the QSA. They also implemented a lavender ceremony during the events leading up to graduation. This ceremony is a celebration for those who came out during college and is rolled into the smaller ceremonies that already happen on campus. Attendees invite friends and/or family and are given a lavender cord to wear during the larger graduation ceremony.
MSU also mandated all staff to take level one safe zone training. “All staff will not be compassionate but all must be aware,” stated Gresswell.
A model for the future from an unexpected place
MSU is not known for its diversity but has created a baseline model easily implemented on most campuses. They experienced minimal pushback from faculty, staff, and unions. Frankly, the biggest issue comes from the finance office as it relates to 1098Ts.
As it stands, despite the public outcry that initiated the changes, MSU has had 5 students sign up and none of them are from the QSA.
View the session handouts here, and download the best practices form below.