Wellesley rejects student demand on gender

Students at prominent all-female college vote to endorse admission of transgender male and non-binary students, but leadership refuses

March 16, 2023

Wellesley College, one of the US’ most renowned women’s universities, has conducted but then rejected a student referendum that endorsed the admission of transgender men and non-binary people.

The college’s president, Paula Johnson, said the institution’s leadership respects the perspectives of its students but is keeping its policy of admitting only those applicants who live and identify as women.

“Although there is no plan to revisit our mission as a women’s college or our admissions policy,” Dr Johnson said in a written response to the vote, “we will continue to engage all students in the important work of building an inclusive academic community where everyone feels they belong.”

The college did not release a tally, in line with its norm for such student-initiated referenda questions, although leaders of the campaign said that the vote at the 2,500-student campus just outside Boston was overwhelmingly in favour of the change.

Hundreds of faculty and alumni also endorsed the idea in a petition to Dr Johnson.

Wellesley is one of the better known among the two-dozen-plus all-female institutions of higher education in the US, with alumnae who include Hillary Clinton and the late Madeleine Albright.

The college’s position on gender is similar to that of its peer institutions, after Wellesley and others shifted in the past decade to start admitting transgender women. An outlier among them, Mount Holyoke College, is among a very few US women’s colleges that also admit transgender men.

Student leaders at Wellesley complained that the resistance to their idea reflected the attitudes of an older and less-diverse campus leadership, but suggested that their vote would prove a step toward helping them see the eventual need to accept the change.

Dr Johnson, in explaining the college’s position, touted Wellesley’s racial, ethnic, geographic, socio-economic and religious diversity; and cited its mission “to challenge the norms and power structures that too often leave women, and others of marginalised identities, behind”.

She also acknowledged the hurt felt by some students whose identities have evolved during their time ay Wellesley and who leave the college with transgender male or non-binary identities, and promised to “do better at finding that balance” between embracing them and maintaining Wellesley’s identity as a women’s college.

“We commit to doing more to acknowledge and respect individual identities,” Dr Johnson said.


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