On Feb. 27, 2017, MacEwan University took a big step in creating a more inclusive environment. Changes announced that day over mymacewan email accounts now make it much easier for students, faculty, and staff to update their preferred name and gender identity in university systems.
This new option for faculty and students is part of a wider initiative that began last May with the creation of a sexual and gender minorities working group. The group was spearheaded by Michelle Plouffe, vice-president, general counsel and compliance officer. Plouffe brought in stakeholders from around the university to discuss ways to promote inclusion and safe spaces at MacEwan.
One member of that working group is Jason Garcia, vice president student life of the Students’ Association of MacEwan University. According to Garcia, a major objective early on was to identify problems that “disempowered MacEwan from being inclusive to the LGBTQ student population.”
Garcia was especially concerned that students who identify as transgender were being outed when instructors read out class rosters. This would happen because, until now, university systems have only recorded legal names and genders.
“Many students have felt singled out in front of their classmates,” Garcia said. “It’s very isolating in moments like that, and, of course, it invalidates one’s identity, too …. You never know what it might’ve taken for that person to feel able to identify the way that they do now.”
The preferred name option also addresses other reasons why a person may favour a name other than their legal one. International students may want to use an anglicized name in order to fit in better while they’re in Canada. Others might have a given name they dislike, or they may wish to use a step-parent’s surname. For some, a given name can have deeply negative connotations.
That can be avoided now, due to the new process. Students, faculty, and staff can identify any name as their preferred first or last name, while gender identity can be updated to male, female, or gender minority. Once a person changes their preferred identification, the change will automatically appear in Blackboard, myStudentSystem, class rosters, library records, and GroupWise address books. However, legal names will still be used in official documents, such as T4 slips or transcripts.
For Plouffe, providing these options is an important part of a larger package of initiatives coming to MacEwan. These include MacEwan’s first campus Pride Week (Mar. 13-17), education and training to promote inclusion, and the development of a dedicated human rights, diversity, and equity office.
“The idea is not to take on one or two things,” Plouffe said. “It’s to drive forward with a number of initiatives and never say it’s enough.”
So far, the response has been promising. In the days following the announcement, 209 people changed their preferred names. Plouffe has also received letters of appreciation from students.
Despite all the positive feedback, Plouffe admits that MacEwan has some catching up to do. Her research has shown that most of the larger universities in Canada already have these programs and spaces in place.
“Are we a leader? Not yet, but maybe in a year,” she said. “It’s starting here.”