CUNY: Don’t Address Students as ‘Mr.’ or ‘Ms.’

Mike Vilensky, Wall Street Journal, January 26, 2015

“Mr.,” “Mrs.” and “Ms.” are being shown the door at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

In a new policy that has sparked debate among academics, school staffers have been advised to refrain from using gendered salutations in correspondence with students–and instead use a student’s full name, according to an internal memo sent out earlier this month.

The directive pertains specifically to administrators’ written interactions with students and prospective students, said Tanya Domi, a school spokeswoman. But the memo says the policy should be “interpreted as broadly as possible” and was sent to all faculty at the Graduate Center.

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The policy goes into effect during the Spring 2015 semester at the Manhattan public university, where some 5,000 students study in doctoral and master’s programs.

The memo, signed by interim Provost Louise Lennihan, calls the policy part of the Graduate Center’s “ongoing effort to ensure a respectful, welcoming and gender-inclusive learning environment . . . and to accommodate properly the diverse population of current and prospective students.”

The memo came after wide consultation with many faculty, staff and students at the Graduate Center, said Ms. Domi, a school spokeswoman. She also said the school was “working within a regulatory framework to comply with Title IX legal principles,” a federal statute banning gender discrimination in educational settings that receive government funding.

Saundra Schuster, an attorney and Title IX consultant for universities, said the statute is intended to protect individuals from gender discrimination–no matter how they identify their gender, including transgender individuals. But, she added, “to say they must [bar gendered salutations] because of the law is ridiculous.”

“I love the concept,” she said, “but they are not mandated to do this.”

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Some people said the policy showed sensitivity to students who identify as transgender.

Gendered salutations represent “an outdated and unnecessary formality [that] serves no purpose other than to label and risk misrepresentation,” said Allison Steinberg, a spokeswoman for the Empire State Pride Agenda, an advocacy group for gay and transgender people. “We’re hopeful this gesture will inspire others . . . to follow in CUNY’s innovative footsteps.”

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At other CUNY schools, some faculty members eyed the new policy warily. Joseph Borelli, a Republican state Assemblyman, said he hoped the policy wouldn’t spread to CUNY’s College of Staten Island, where he teaches a politics course.

“If a student asked me to call him ‘Godzilla,’ I would happily call him ‘Godzilla’ or whatever anyone asked to be called,” Mr. Borelli said. “But we do not need another ultra PC policy change.”

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