Coordinate System

By Julia Cilano ’23

Herald Staff

From the first moment prospective students step onto campus, they can witness the unique history of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Standing on Pulteney Street, one stands on the old dividing line between the Colleges and sees in the scissors statue on Stern Lawn the unity of two pieces coming together as one. However, what do those two united pieces still keep separate? What lines are there on campus besides Pulteney Street? What do those scissors cut away? The coordinate system that brought Hobart and William Smith together in the early 20th century is keeping the modern Colleges from growing and maturing. The Hobart and William Smith student body, specifically LGBTQ+ students, are restrained from expressing themselves and living their lives how they want to live them, and the invisible barriers of gender identity and tradition permeate the campus and shackle it to the past.

The origin story of Hobart and William Smith Colleges is a commonly known one. Hobart College was founded in 1822 by Bishop John Henry Hobart, William Smith College was founded in 1906 across the road, and the two were united in 1922. Starting with a joint commencement, then graduation, then bringing the colleges together equally in 1943, Hobart and William Smith Colleges slowly merged into the HWS that is present today: one college experience with separate deans, athletic departments, and student governments.

The divisions between the two run much deeper than they originally appear to; from the college application process and matriculation to graduation and diplomas, students are forced to pick Hobart or William Smith. Aside from the maleness of Hobart’s history and the femaleness of William Smith’s, there is no major difference in the lives of current HWS students, and the gendered division only hurts the Colleges.

In recent years, students have pushed for changes to or the complete abolition of the coordinate system in order to better cater to the needs of non-binary, transgender, and genderqueer students. In 2015, the “Culture of Respect” report, which recognized the faults of the coordinate system, was published, and in 2018, the Board of Trustees sent out a report on the changes that were made and about to be made to the coordinate system. The 2019 Coordinate Report and Policy continues this promise of change by laying out plans for short-term and long-term solutions.

In the short term, the plan to change the coordinate system includes educating faculty, staff, and students about the coordinate system; changing the gendered language of diplomas, transcripts, application forms, and advertising materials; promoting Hobart and William Smith traditions to the entire student body; supporting conversation about gender and the coordinate system; and “[making] gender inclusiveness explicit on campus.” For the long term, the report mentions the availability of adequate gender-neutral bathrooms in each dorm, the creation of a single Dean’s List, and the furthering of education and awareness.

The conversation about the coordinate system and its impacts on LGBTQ+ students is alive and well among the student population. In September, the LGBTQ+ Resource Center hosted a Coordinate Conversation between the students and several of the Deans of both Hobart and William Smith. During this meeting, students had the opportunity to discuss the reality of living on a heavily gendered campus and going to a heavily gendered college with the Deans, and the students suggested ideas like explaining the true weight of the coordinate system to prospective students, changing the gendered language and implications of being either a Hobart or a William Smith student, and changing traditions to accept and include HWS’ entire student body. The details of the implementation of these ideas weren’t discussed, but there is enough student-led force to ensure change in HWS’ culture.

At the heart of the debate over the coordinate system is the negative impacts it has on the lives of HWS students, especially LGBTQ+ students. Such a dedication to a system built on the differences between “men” and “women” suffocates queer students and their ability to explore their gender identity, transition, and come out. The assumption that students are either male or female, the need to pick between Hobart or William Smith, and the traditions and expectations of the two schools uphold outdated ideas of gender, gender identity, and sex.

HWS can congratulate itself on being one of the first colleges in the country to have an LGBTQ+ Studies major and minor but relying on the gender binary supported by the coordinate system flies in the face of all of the progress the Colleges have made. The off-campus world is changing rapidly, and students are bringing that spirit of change to Hobart and William Smith and demanding it of the Colleges. It’s only right that HWS changes with the students it supports, and in this case, that means that the very foundations of this college need to be reshaped and revolutionized to adequately move into the future.

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