Though it occurred well over a year now, my most prominent memory at HWS is still the first day of Orientation. Walking through the Hobart matriculation tent alone was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life; being ignored by the Alumni Association and having to endure questioning side glances made it immediately clear that I did not belong here. The anxiety and isolation I experienced that first day has only increased tenfold over the past year.
When I enrolled, I had no idea what a coordinate system was. It was not brought up in my interview or during the one tour I had taken on Scholar’s Day. I assumed it mostly had to do with athletics, which I had no intention of participating in. Imagine my surprise stepping on to this campus and immediately being defined solely by an incorrect gender. However, that surprise was very quickly replaced with stress, anger, and isolation as I realized what the coordinate system meant for a student like me.
The coordinate system creates several issues, starting with its imposition of a false gender binary. Gender is not limited to men and women, nor has it ever been. Gender is a social construct. However, by purposely setting up a system that only recognizes men and women, HWS sends a clear message to gender non-conforming people that they will not be recognized here, and even more so that they do not deserve to be recognized here.
The system also sets up gendered expectations, in the forms of the strong Hobart man and the empowered William Smith woman. Both of these figures are typically white, cisgender, and financially privileged. Both are picture-perfect versions of the ideals of HWS. Anyone who does not fit these molds loses connection with the Colleges; in a place where tradition is so heavily prioritized, how does the system deal with students whose very existences defies traditional expectations? From my experience, exclusion and isolation are common effects.
What I find the most amusing about the coordinate system is how much it lies about itself. The biggest lie of the coordinate system is that we have a men’s college and a women’s college. The importance of women’s colleges derived most often from a lack of access for women to higher education, or rampant sexism in higher educational practices. The entire point of a women’s college is getting an education solely with other women, which is not happening at HWS. Everyone has the same classes, the same professors, the same academic honors; what HWS does in reality is set up gendered traditions that seep into academic life where they don’t belong. I’m in classes with Hobart and William Smith students. There is no reason why my academic diploma should falsely label me as a Hobart College student when I have never and will never be in classes solely with other Hobart students.
This leads me to my biggest critique of the coordinate system — it makes gender, not education, the basis of an HWS college experience. Instead of starting with academics, the system divides everything and everyone into a false binary and focuses on academics as a secondary experience of college. I should not be talking about my gender and how college will make me into an ideal man before getting a chance to sit in some classes and get my first homework assignment, but that is what is currently happening here at HWS. Gender should not be the basis for an education; there is a big difference between having nuanced conversations about gender in higher academia and having gender dominate the academic experience. We aren’t talking about gender at HWS; the system is just imposing it as the most important feature of college while students suffer the consequences in and out of their classrooms.
I want to make something very clear in all of this. The coordinate system is not just a “transgender issue.” Though I am writing this from the perspective of a nonbinary, trans masculine student, I do not want to reduce this conversation to just the way the system negatively impacts trans students. The way binary gender is prioritized at HWS damages any student who does not fulfill the stereotypes of the strong Hobart man or the empowered William Smith woman. The coordinate system is an issue requiring an intersectional analysis, and any take on the coordinate system is incomplete without looking toward marginalized cisgender students as well as trans students.
I am no fool. I understand that the coordinate system will not disappear anytime soon, not while alums are fighting so strongly for it and not while the administration and members of the Board of Trustees are not actively engaging with current students about this issue. Because of this, I think it is important to look at what can be done moving forward to support students that the system is leaving out. To that end, I propose some suggestions. Most of these suggestions support trans students specifically but are overall aimed at creating much needed support for all students that the system leaves out.
First, Admissions and the HWS website need to be advertising the coordinate system heavily from here on out. If I had known what the coordinate system was like, I would not have chosen to attend HWS. I quite honestly feel tricked; at every turn, the coordinate system was played down or ignored by staff I dealt with, and it is not prominently featured on the website. Some will say that we will receive fewer applicants if we heavily advertise the coordinate system. I quite frankly do not care if we receive fewer applicants, and that argument makes it clear that some at HWS care more about students as numbers than as people. No one should feel confused or tricked, which seems to be a common theme among students dissatisfied with system. We are being sold an incomplete picture, and it is damaging students who would otherwise be happy at an institution that does not put them in boxes. The coordinate system is extremely important in deciding to come here, and if HWS intends to keep it for the time being, it needs to do right by its students and advertise the truth of the Colleges.
Second, we need to change the language anywhere possible to be more inclusive. Gendered language (Hobart man, William Smith woman) should not be the official language of the Colleges. It leaves out students who are not men or women. I am not a Hobart man — I’m a nonbinary person who happens to be enrolled in a “men’s college.” Such language furthers the false idea of a gender binary and prevents HWS from having nuanced conversations about gender. HWS markets itself as diverse and inclusive; if it wants to live up to those claims, its official language should reflect a contemporary view of gender. He/she can easily be replaced by they, and man/woman can easily be replaced by student in all of our advertising and materials.
Third, faculty training is crucial, both for current and new faculty. I have been misgendered in almost every class I have been in, and my attempts to correct my professors have been most often met by defensive arguments and excuses. I have been treated like a fascinating specimen by some, called out as the only visible trans person in the room to be an expert, to be an example, to be anything other than just a student trying to learn. Faculty need training to learn how to handle the students that HWS seemingly wants to recruit; in a system designed without diversity in mind, it is unacceptable that there are not measures in place to make sure that students are being treated with basic respect as human beings in the classroom.
Fourth, supports for trans students need to be seriously evaluated. Currently, trans students do not have access to an all-gender bathroom with a shower in every residence hall. Not every building has an all-gender bathroom. Trans healthcare is not covered under the student health insurance plan. The application for all gender housing is confusing and doesn’t provide enough information on who students can live with and where. This is just a short list of some problems, but hopefully highlights the need to look at support more closely. Being trans at HWS in a unique challenge, and without support, students are left feeling isolated and are exposed to numerous difficulties their cisgender peers do not have to navigate. HWS has failed trans students in many ways, and has failed me personally in many ways. It needs to make a commitment to figuring out what trans students need and how to provide them with those resources.
Finally, and most importantly, we need to be having campus-wide conversations about this issue. The yearly dialogues around commencement seating are not enough. Students, faculty, staff, and the administration need to be coming together to understand how the system is affecting people, and brainstorm about how to move forward. Apathy is no longer an option. If HWS is genuinely committed to supporting students in their quests to “lead lives of consequence,” then this campus needs to start engaging in dialogue and listening. Students will not be silenced on this matter. Neither will faculty, staff, or alums. The time is now to deal with this.
“If not now, when?”