As College Seeks to Admit Transgender Students, Professor Thanks Bruce Jenner

Barnard is set to vote next week on the admission policy, and some teachers say popular culture has advanced the issue.
A commencement ceremony at Barnard College. (Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
May 31, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

In the late 1800s, Barnard College became one of the first schools in the United States to offer women a university education that rivaled men’s. Today, it bills itself as the country’s most sought-after liberal arts college for women, with students from every state and more than 45 countries. Yet, the school continues to deny admission to transgender women—a contentious policy that could be repealed in a vote by trustees next week, The Associated Press reports.

The vote comes after Barnard President Debora Spar announced in December that the campus would host a series of town halls and an online survey aimed at confidentially gauging opinion about the school’s long-standing practice to “admit only students who identify, in the traditional sense, as women,” Spar said in a statement.

“At Barnard, we have no formal policy addressing transgender applicants because, until recently, we hadn’t needed one,” she said, noting that federal law permits the institution to discriminate on the basis of sex.

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But in the months since Spar’s initial announcement, much has changed in public awareness of transgender rights. Smith College’s board of trustees voted this month to update its undergraduate admission policy to recognize self-identified transgender women. Two similar announcements also came this year from Bryn Mawr College and Wellesley College, the latter of which said it would consider “any applicant who lives as a woman and consistently identifies as a woman.”

But one of the year’s most influential calls for transgender awareness didn’t come from the ivory tower. It came from reality star Bruce Jenner in an interview with Diane Sawyer that was viewed by 17 million people—more than any other 20/20 episode in more than 15 years.

Jennifer Finney Boylan, a trans woman who teaches English at Barnard, told the AP that Jenner’s public transition—as well as the popularity of shows such as Transparent and Orange Is the New Black, both of which prominently feature transgender characters—have helped to promote transgender issues to even the most traditional institutions.

Some schools, including Mills College, which became the first all-women’s college to openly admit transgender students in 2014, have reasoned that their inclusion of trans students is consistent with their founding mission of countering gender oppression.

Like Barnard, Mills was established in the late 1800s to offer women the opportunity for higher education that they had historically been denied. While women remain underrepresented in certain fields, the school has come to “recognize transgender and gender fluid people as similarly oppressed by cultural, economic, and political systems,” according to its 2013 report on the issue.

While Barnard could become the latest all-women’s college to admit transgender students, there’s still much to be done in breaking down barriers that prevent LGBT students from applying to college in the first place. Gay and transgender high school students who are bullied because of their sexual orientation are more than twice as likely as other students to report not wanting to pursue higher education, according to a 2011 survey by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.