‘She’ Is Not Welcome on Campus

It’s good to respect people’s feelings, but universities shouldn’t be forcing anyone to use sensitive language.


The University of Tennessee at Knoxville drew widespread derision last week for publishing a pronoun usage guide that asked students and professors to add the gender-neutral descriptors ze/zir/zirs and xe/xem/xyrs to their vocabularies. Conservatives accused the university of encouraging political correctness run amok, and the left accused the right of callous, lazy disregard for the feelings of transgender students.

In truth, both accusations contain at least a kernel of wisdom. But whether or not students take kindly to new pronouns, it’s important to remind universities that they have no right to compel members of their campus communities to use sensitive language, even though college administrators across the country are constantly trying to do just that.

The guide, which appeared on the UT website on August 26, was authored by Donna Braquet, director of the campus’s Pride Center. “We should not assume someone’s gender by their appearance, nor by what is listed on a roster or in student information systems,” warned Braquet. “Transgender people and people who do not identity within the gender binary may use a different name than their legal name and pronouns of their gender identity, rather than the pronouns of the sex they were assigned at birth.”

Braquet went on to instruct professors to ask students how they wish to be identified on the first day of class. Her post included a graphic that listed gender-neutral pronouns ze/zir/zirs and xe/xem/xyrs alongside the traditional pronouns he/him/his and she/her/hers.

“In fact, there are dozens of gender-neutral pronouns,” wrote Braquet. “A few of the most common singular gender-neutral pronouns are they, them, their (used as singular), ze, hir, hirs, and xe, xem, xyr. These may sound a little funny at first, but only because they are new. The she and he pronouns would sound strange too if we had been taught ze when growing up.”

What sounded strange to many students was the idea that they would be forced to describe each other using words they had never heard of.

“How does this make the campus so much more inclusive?” wondered student Michael Hensley, chairman of the campus’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, in a statement to The College Fix. “It’s a certain set of those in academia that have created these words out of nothing.”

The university countered that adherence to the guide wasn’t mandatory—students and professors would incur no penalty for failing to use gender-neutral pronouns. But this explanation didn’t come quickly enough, and many news sites ran articles contending that the university had formally replaced the words he and she with alien-looking expressions. At least one local Republican politician promised to convene a legislative hearing to look into the matter. In response, University of Tennessee system President Joe DiPietro ordered administrators to take down the web page on pronouns.

“Despite the aggressive efforts by UT Knoxville to communicate the fact that the campus does not require the use of gender-neutral pronouns, I am deeply concerned about the attention this matter continues to receive and the harm it has had on the reputation of the University of Tennessee,” DiPietro said in a statement. “The social issues and practices raised by the Office for Diversity and Inclusion are appropriate ones for discussion on a university campus. However, it was not appropriate to do so in a manner that suggests it is the expectation that all on campus embrace these practices.”

Supporters of transgender people remained mystified that a harmless suggestion to use inclusive language could be received so poorly. “Society changes, language changes and today on college campuses, there are increasing numbers of people who specify nontraditional pronouns,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “Why not respect them?”

Indeed, why not respect them? Certainly, one ought to honor the easily fulfilled wishes of transgender students—or anyone who prefers to go by a nickname, middle name, or some other unobvious term. Professors who ask members of class how they wish to be identified are doing the kind thing, and students who exercise some courtesy when addressing their classmates deserve a pat on the back.

But what one ought to say and what one is required to say are very, very different things. The First Amendment protects the rights of students at public universities to use whichever pronouns they wish, and it also protects the rights of professors to run their classrooms in any manner they choose. College administrators can’t bully members of campus into adopting different behavior, even if said behavior is generally advisable.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

While it’s true that UT wasn’t actually forcing students to censor their he’s and she’s, the message was sufficiently confusing to make it unclear whether the pronoun guide was a suggestion or a decree. And it’s really no surprise that so many people interpreted Braquet’s advice as an articulation of mandatory campus-wide policy. Universities continuously blur this line when they attempt to spell out their contradictory rules on offensive speech.

The City University of New York, in fact, told faculty members last January that they should stop using gender-specific salutations like “Mr.” and “Ms.” in emails to each other and to students. CUNY’s speech requirement was mandatory; administrators maintained that the elimination of gendered language was necessary in order to bring the university in compliance with Title IX, a federal law that requires equality in higher education.

The idea that Title IX requires such a degree of language policing is preposterous, and would never stand up in court. But university administrators seem very confused about their obligation under the Bill of Rights to take the side of free speech whenever and wherever conflicts with bizarre federal dictates arise.

All people deserve respect, and the classroom is the ideal place to educate students about new and improved ways to use language to foster human dignity. But that educational duty falls to professors, not university bureaucrats. There’s simply no place for mandatory pronoun policing at institutions that value free speech.