NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – The president of the University of Tennessee told state lawmakers on Wednesday that it’s committed to inclusion and diversity even though references to the use of gender-neutral pronouns were removed from a school website.
UT President Joe DiPietro spoke at a hearing before the state Senate Higher Education Subcommittee following outcry from the posting made in August by the University of Tennessee Office for Diversity and Inclusion.
The office had asked students and faculty to use gender-neutral pronouns such as “ze” in order to create a more inclusive campus. Officials had said the suggestion was aimed to be welcoming of the transgender population and “people who do not identify within the gender binary.”
But following a slew of complaints, including UT alumni and state lawmakers, DiPietro sent a message to university trustees last month saying references to gender-neutral pronouns would be removed from the school’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion website.
DiPietro told committee members on Wednesday that the website posting was never intended to be policy, and that steps have been taken to ensure similar misunderstandings don’t occur in the future.
However, he emphasized that the university is committed to making sure that all students feel welcome at the university, regardless of how they identify themselves.
“Diversity is open to all, hostile to none,” said DiPietro. “As for the importance of advancing diversity and inclusion … we’re committed to promoting a civil and non-hostile learning environment.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, lawmakers seemed to avoid direct discussion of the gender-neutral pronouns, and instead focused on how much money UT spends on diversity programs and how it “measures diversity.”
“How much is enough?” Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, asked in reference to diversity. “At what point have you achieved your goal?”
While UT removed references to gender-neutral pronouns, a number of major institutions are widening their policies and pronouns to acknowledge transgender students, as well as “genderqueer” students, who don’t identify as male or female.
For instance, during the registration process at Harvard University, students are now allowed to indicate which pronouns they use, with suggested gender-neutral options like “ze” or “they.”
American University posted a guide on its website explaining how to use pronouns like “ey,” and how to ask someone which pronouns they use. Cornell University and MIT offer similar primers on their websites. Ohio University started letting students register their gender pronouns this year, and officials at Boston University said they’re discussing the topic. Last month, the State University of New York, one of the nation’s largest public college systems, announced that it’s working on a data-collection tool to let students choose among seven gender identities, including “trans man,” ”questioning” and “genderqueer.”
Advocates for transgender students applaud the changes, saying it can be insulting to be identified by the wrong pronoun.
“It feels really invalidating to have people make an assumption about what your gender is simply by looking at you,” said Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
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