Harvard University has said that in order to better understand its students and match them with applicable resources it may start asking applicants if they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
This admissions form question would be optional and the university, which has been flooded with early admissions requests this year, is keen to stress that information about sexual orientation or gender identity will play no part in the admissions decision-making process. Rather, Harvard hopes the question would communicate that the university embraces a diverse student body and that it is keen to meet its students’ needs.
Harvard University announced Wednesday that it may add language to its admission application that would allow prospective students to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, according toThe Harvard Crimson.
The admissions office is currently working on the wording of the potential question, and the staff intends to meet with student groups in the coming months to solicit feedback. “I think this campus is really welcoming to all students and that’s the signal we want to send,” dean of admissions and financial aid William R. Fitzsimmons told the Crimson.
A student identifying as LGBT would not function as a positive “tip” in the the application process. Fitzsimmons said the move is intended to be more of a welcoming signal to “students who are grappling with the issue of [sexual orientation] or gender identity.” Students may also be asked to write an optional essay to express their personal stories and experiences.
The final decision on adding this question will not be made until February of next year, but writers over at the Harvard Crimson appear in favor of the move citing that it would do well to answer for Harvard’s history and allay any fears LGBT students might have about applying. However, they would also like to see careful thought given to how the question is phrased so as to best show the diversity of identity and avoid narrow labels:
It should be no secret that queer students are enthusiastically embraced at Harvard and have held top leadership positions in cultural groups, the Harvard College Democrats, and the Harvard Republican Club. The University covers a variety of medical options for transgender students and employees, has appointed openly gay housemasters, and recently opened a BGLTQ student resource center. Those of us on the inside know that Harvard is queer friendly, but prospective applicants often lack the same insights. The proposed question on the Harvard supplement would highlight that the University embraces queer students from day one.
However, we must be mindful that the way the question is phrased is just as important as whether the question exists at all. Less than 100 years ago, Harvard initiated a veritable witch-hunt to purge its halls of queer students. Fears of that prejudice persist to this day, and any solicitation of information regarding the sexual orientation or gender identity of prospective students must be clear about the information not being used against the students in any way. Additionally, it is important to remember that prospective applicants may have wide-ranging sexual and gender identities and to be willing to accommodate them.
The merits of this and similar admissions questions have been debated quite widely and not all to positive effect.
Some concern has been raised, for instance, that students who were not yet sure of their own identity may feel pressured to choose for the sake of the form an identity marker that they will later find does not match who they truly are, perhaps even later causing them some emotional distress.
Other voices have been more positive over the issue in saying that so long as the question is not used as part of admissions criteria it should in fact be a standard question on admissions forms, in the same way that other elective information is gathered, because it would help university officials better understand students’ life experiences.