Penn State Faculty Senate hopes gender-neutral language will boost inclusivity on campus

  • By Matt DiSanto/WPSU

(State College) — Penn State students checking out the course catalog this fall may notice some changes meant to boost inclusivity on campus.

The university’s Faculty Senate voted 125-13 in late April to remove binary and gendered terms like “freshman” and “upperclassmen” and the pronouns “he” and “she” from Penn State’s course and program descriptions.

Faculty Senator Bonj Szczygiel said the new, more inclusive language aims to take one struggle off some students’ plates.

“There are so many pressures placed on students,” she said. “I’ve always been really impressed with their ability to sort of pull it together and manage and deal with the complexities of their lives. This is one complexity that they shouldn’t have to deal with.”

Szczygiel said some representatives felt terms like “upperclassmen” were classist and sexist, while “freshman” was too male-specific.

“Freshmen” will become “first-year students,” “sophomores” will be “second-year students,” and so on. “Underclassmen” and “upperclassmen” will become “lower division” and “upper division.”

“He” and “she” will be replaced with “they” or a non-gendered term such as “student.”

Gendered terms will remain under a few circumstances, like a women’s studies course.

Changes won’t be implemented overnight. Szczygiel says administrative groups that approve course materials will gradually comb through files and update their language starting this summer.

“They’re too busy to set everything aside and say, ‘Let’s edit 5,000 documents,'” she said.

Szczygiel said the changes won’t be obvious to many students.

“Very few students will even be aware that these changes were taking place,” she said. “The exception are those students who seek this non-binary identification. They will notice, and they are the important ones in this story.”

Still, students can continue gaining the dreaded “Freshman 15″ and celebrating Senior Week, if they like. For now, the term changes only apply to course materials.

Najee Rodriguez, the vice president of Penn State’s student government, said he supports the changes. He feels the new terms will help more students feel they belong on campus.

“It goes a long way just for a student to be affirmed that you don’t necessarily have to fit a certain box, that the university is understanding of that, and they’re trying to expand relative to inclusiveness,” he said.

Student Olivia Marshall wants the university to take bigger steps toward inclusion. She said that while the new language is helpful, Penn State’s community must change to truly make a difference for students.

“There’s some parts of the culture that need to change before any real change can be made at Penn State. And with the trajectory that it’s on now, I don’t see that changing anytime soon,” Marshall said.

Praise for the new policy hasn’t been universal. News of Penn State’s elimination of gendered and binary terms spread quickly following April’s vote, and with it came criticism from conservatives and alumni.

Szczygiel says inaccurate information online has made it tough for others to truly understand the new policy.

“It just floored me to see how inaccurately this story has played out in big news items like Fox and CNN,” Szczygiel said. “They got a lot of it wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s just out there in cyber world, and people just assume that what they’re hearing is true.”

Szczygiel said backlash was confusing because the new policy is an extension of Penn State’s already-existing Preferred Name and Gender Identity Policy. Since 2017, it’s let students identify how they’d like to be presented in class.

Both the House of Representatives and the United Nations already use gender-neutral language. So do schools like the University of Virginia and Yale.

Criticism has had a personal effect on some Penn State employees, too.

One Faculty Senator who helped write the legislation declined an interview with WPSU, saying he had received negative emails and threats from critics. Officials within Penn State’s Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity said the university had asked them not to comment on the new policy.

Rodriguez said negative reactions to the Faculty Senate’s plans reinforce the need for progressive changes on campus.

“I’ve seen the Fox News articles, I’ve seen the comments,” he said. “The hate that’s been spewed online is just really telling as to why [the change] is necessary in the first place.”

Rodriguez said the removal of binary and gendered terms could be a jumping-off point for Penn State to continue embracing progressivism on campus.

“It really needs to seize on this moment of embracing this verbal idea of inclusiveness and really putting this into action and not just words,” he said. “There’s a lot more work to be done, and I think we’re taking the right steps to achieve that.”

For now, Szczygiel hopes the removal of binary and gendered terms will make a difference for some Penn State students. She says that’s the ultimate job of the university’s faculty representatives.

“It can be a pretty cruel world out there, and college is no exception,” she said. “This is our way of simply saying that we accept all students. We want to accept all students and make them feel at home.”

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