Good News! You Can Change Your Name, Starting Next Fall: An Interview with Dean Mike Whaley

Goober Cornelicious Perpindantia Obo Love III

Good news! Starting next Fall, students will be able to log a preferred name in their ePortfolios to appear on most University documents instead of the legal given name. I sat down with Dean Mike Whaley of Student Affairs some time ago to get the details:

pyrotechnics: If you could start off by describing what the project is?

Dean Mike Whaley: Yeah, so a number of years ago we had a student who, even prior to coming to Wesleyan, was very active on trans* issues, and when ze arrived on campus one of the requests was ‘can I change my name, so that not my legal name but rather my preferred name appears on class lists, email… everything but transcript and diploma.’ And at the time, we made that happen in an ad hoc way, but that got me and others thinking about… there are a number of students, trans* students, international students, even students from New Jersey who use their middle name instead of the first name, nicknames, [etc.]. So we’ve been thinking for quite a while now that it’d be really helpful to give people the option to record a preferred name, to store in the system a preferred name, and to have that name appear in most places. There are certain issues with diplomas and transcripts and having to have your legal name on those, but most of the business we conduct can make use of preferred names. At the time we talked to the Registrar’s Office about that; they had a very long list of things they were working on with ITS and so this was at the bottom, and last year… [laughs] I’ve kinda raised it every other year or so… and last year we got some traction on it. Folks said ‘yeah, we can accommodate this and make it happen.’ So that’s what we’re working on now. 

There won’t be per se a gender, my preferred gender kind of thing; at least that’s not what we’re envisioning right now. But people would be able to put in a preferred name. And then change that. You’d be able to do that through your Portfolio, so in two years if your frosh year you wanted to be [Cathy] and then by your junior year you wanted to be [Jim], you could choose those changes. So that’s really the idea, and some other places have started doing this, so right now we’re in the process. The Registrar’s Office is working with IT to do the programming aspect of it and I’m working with a couple of other folks to develop an FAQ and kind of like a policy statement. And we’re looking at some other institutions that have done this, you know for guidelines and so forth. So that’s the idea.

p: What has the process been like?

MW: Primarily it’s been a discussion between myself and Anna Van der Burg, who is the University Registrar, and when she said ‘yeah I think we can make this happen,’ she and I pulled together a bunch of different people just to say ‘hey, are we missing anything? Are there any issues we don’t see here?’ So Jon Gudtvagen from Financial Aid was in on that discussion, the Class Deans were in on that discussion, IT folks, Anna and I and I think that was it. Just to say ‘hey, is there anything we’re not thinking of in terms who this will impact?’ And everyone seemed really supportive of the idea so I’m happy that we’re finally going to be able to move forward on it. Now it’s just a matter of getting the FAQs developed and then IT doing the programming so I fully expect that we’ll be able to roll this out for next Fall. We’ll take the Spring, when I have a policy statement and an FAQ together we’ll share it with the Registrar’s Office, and IT, and go through student governance just so we can get as many details as possible worked out ahead of time before we start with it.

p: [In your words,] why are these changes important?

MW: I think that there are number of reasons. There are a number of folks, trans* students in particular, for whom legal name doesn’t work, connotes a different gender than what they identify with and/or present. For international students who use an Americanized name, we have many of them as well. I think it’s just more inclusive, more welcoming, and for [someone who uses their middle name] to have [Gordon] appear in the class list instead of the faculty member saying [‘Miguel? Miguel?’]… I think it will be easy and better on both sides in terms of transactions. So students that RAs might have will have the preferred names, class lists that faculty will have will have preferred names, emergency contact stuff when we pull it up at 2:00AM in the middle of the night because something’s happened to somebody, we’ll have the preferred name. We won’t be calling the hospital looking for somebody who doesn’t go by that name, you know, so I think it will just be beneficial all around and on both sides of the transactions.

p: Why not include pronouns as well?

MW: Pronouns tend to be… well, I guess preferred names can be too, but pronouns tend to be a little more variable and there’s no place really where we record that. Right now, there’s no… in the data base it says [John Doe] but it doesn’t say [Mr. John Doe] or [Ms. John Doe]. Now there’s a gender that comes in from the Common App but that doesn’t really appear in most stuff. So that’s partly the reason why we didn’t include pronouns: because they’re not there now. And we don’t record or produce those anywhere.

p: Could it be useful for RAs or faculty just as a reference, for introductions and emails and so forth? Is there a space for that?

MW: I don’t know. It would probably require some more programming since we don’t have that field right now. So it’s something we could look into; it wasn’t what we had initially talked about. In terms of looking at what other institutions have done, I haven’t seen other places do that, which is not a reason to do it or not to do it. But it didn’t come up for me, and I also happen to know students who change their pronoun preferences pretty regularly. So I suppose if you’re looking it up in real time from the Portfolio all the time rather than referring to a list that could be helpful for people to go in and change, and not have to wait for the next class list to come out or whatever. So that’s something we can look at.

p: Anything else you want to add?

MW: I’m just really pleased that we’re finally getting some traction on moving in this direction because I think it will make sense for a lot of students. I go into the Class Deans’ files and half of the… we print out the legal names on the tabs… and like half of them are crossed out and what the student wants to be called are sort of handwritten in. And so that was really when it struck me again when last year when I had a part of the sophomore class that I was working with and I kept pulling all of these files and having ‘oh here’s another person,’ who for any number of reasons why doesn’t use their given legal name. And I thought just this is crazy and we should really get this done. Some I’m glad that folks are receptive for making it happen.