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Morehouse president faces questions about college’s new gender admissions policy

President David A. Thomas’ Q&A with students helped clarify how the policy would work

Morehouse College president David A. Thomas over the last month has been hearing from students and alumni about the college’s new Gender Identity Admissions and Matriculation Policy. He understands how some students don’t agree with the new policy because he once was a student activist while he attended Yale.

Thomas hosted a conversation recently where students asked questions and voiced their concerns and issues with the new admissions policy. “The president of Yale never came and spoke to the students about anything we were upset about or didn’t agree with, and we made the administration more the enemy than we invited them to help us help them make the place better,” Thomas said.

During the meeting with students, Thomas explained to the group of fewer than 50 students how the policy came about and when it began being put into place:

“I arrived roughly 15 1/2 months ago in January, and soon after I got here, people were asking me questions related to who does Morehouse admit. Our admissions staff were also getting asked that question,” he said. “Some people wondered if we now admitted women. Some people wondered — and this actually came to me after some conversation with our students who thought that Morehouse didn’t admit trans men — and what became clear is that we would be helped by having a policy that spoke to them so that everything from admissions to also speaking clearly to those who want to apply.

“So we engaged in a process. I think the things that are important for you to understand about the process is, again, it started over a year ago.”

“For gender-nonconforming students who come to Morehouse because it is a men’s college and they identify in some aspect of their identity with that but are not necessarily what we call gender-conforming, they are welcome to apply and matriculate at Morehouse.” – Morehouse president David A. Thomas

Thomas said a survey was sent to about 17,000 people, including alumni, students, parents, faculty and staff, asking questions related to the Gender Identity Admissions and Matriculation Policy at Morehouse.

“What we learned from that survey was that there was really no consensus in the community,” Thomas said. “Views ranged all the way from Morehouse should essentially become a historically men’s college, and therefore we’d be open to anyone that wanted to apply. We could, in fact, become coed. At the other end, people thought that we should admit people strictly based off of their sex assigned at birth.”

Although students raised questions about the status of transgender students being admitted into the college, they also wanted to know how nonbinary, gender-nonconforming students would be affected by the new policy. The policy will apply to students who enroll at Morehouse for the fall 2020 semester.

“For gender-nonconforming students who come to Morehouse because it is a men’s college and they identify in some aspect of their identity with that but are not necessarily what we call gender-conforming, they are welcome to apply and matriculate at Morehouse,” said Thomas.

Before the conversation with students last week, the Morehouse Student Government Association hosted a “Radical Student Town Hall” that was scheduled after the announcement of the new admissions policy, released April 13. It was led by a panel that included SGA president Quintin Paschall, vice president Wendell Shelby-Wallace and Tatiana Rafael, a 28-year-old Morehouse student who was accepted into the college while she identified as male and transitioned to female during her enrollment.

Though the SGA town hall also had fewer than 50 students in attendance, their voices and opinions represented larger concerns on campus. Paschall said his purpose at the town hall was to educate students as to what was taking place.

“My purpose was to re-educate and understand the student body so I could come with proposed methods of how I can make sure that our students are getting everything that they need. Some people came with the opinion of Morehouse should be a coed institution, some came with the idea that it should be a single-gendered institution, and that’s not what I was there for,” said Paschall. “It was to give an understanding of the policy, for one, and two, what things do we need to tell the administration that we need to improve upon, as far as the policy and the well-being of our students.”

Rafael, who is still a Morehouse student, was asked about her knowledge of the policy prior to it being released to the public:

“I was told probably about a month prior to it coming out the details of the policy because of the fact that I am transsexual, so they kind of let me in on what the policy was going to implement so I wouldn’t be caught off guard,” said Rafael. “I probably knew about last month, and that was the extent in my involvement. I didn’t get to have any say in how it was shaped. I did get to express my opinion — which, of course, I did not agree with it — but that was the extent of my involvement.”

Spelman College, the historically black women’s institution neighboring Morehouse, adopted a similar policy in 2017, before its all-male counterpart. Spelman and Morehouse aren’t the only historically black colleges or universities to implement gender identity policies. Tuskegee, Howard, Florida A&M, Southern, North Carolina Central and Morgan State have all implemented gender identity policies on their campuses.

Morehouse is one of four all-male colleges in the United States and the only predominantly black one. It was not the first of the four to establish a gender identity policy on its single-gender campus. In 2016, Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, changed its gender identity policy to consider “applicants who consistently live and identify as men, regardless of the gender assigned to them at birth.”

Paschall, who is also a student trustee on the college’s board, said the other single-gendered institutions played a part in Morehouse establishing its new policy.

“There are only about four all-men’s colleges; there a handful of women’s colleges, several that I hear about. The two that I think had the greatest influence are the two women’s colleges that are historically black colleges, that serve black women, Spelman College and Bennett College, but those are not the only schools,” said Paschall.

Lanarion Norwood Jr., a junior political science/economics major, also serves as a student trustee. He was in the board meeting during the vote on the policy and believes that neighboring Spelman College might have had an effect on the timing of the Morehouse policy.

“I honestly don’t think there was a time limit for when we should have done it. It just came to a point to where we need to establish policy because we don’t have one, and a lot of that can be influenced by Spelman College,” said Norwood.

Norwood said he wanted to make sure students’ voices were heard in the board meeting to vote on the policy.

“We have to consider a policy that is progressive yet maintains Morehouse’s mission,” he said.

The new policy comes nearly 10 years after Morehouse’s “Appropriate Attire Policy,” which banned students from wearing women’s clothes, makeup, high heels and purses; wearing hats in buildings, pajamas in public, do-rags, sagging pants and sunglasses in class; and walking barefoot on campus. When the policy was released in 2009, it garnered media attention similar to that surrounding the recent release of the gender identity policy.

Tucker Toole is a junior cinema-television and emerging media studies major and journalism. This Chicago native serves as sports editor for the “Maroon Tiger” and is a die-hard Chicago sports fan.