Ken­ne­saw State up­dat­ing sys­tems to help trans­gen­der stu­dents

GA Voice - - Georgianews -

Ken­ne­saw State Univer­sity is in the process of chang­ing its on­line class man­age­ment sys­tem to al­low stu­dents to list both their pre­ferred name and pro­noun – a change brought on af­ter com­plaints from the school’s trans­gen­der and gen­der non­con­form­ing stu­dents. It’s some­thing the school’s Pres­i­den­tial Com­mis­sion on GLBTIQ Ini­tia­tives has been work­ing on for years, but com­mis­sion mem­bers say there was one per­son who fi­nally made it hap­pen: newly named univer­sity Pres­i­dent Sam Olens.

Olens, of course, is the for­mer Ge­or­gia at­tor­ney gen­eral who de­fended the state in a law­suit chal­leng­ing its 2004 ban on same-sex mar­riage and last year joined 10 other states in su­ing the fed­eral govern­ment, ar­gu­ing it had no au­thor­ity to di­rect the na­tion’s pub­lic school dis­tricts to per­mit stu­dents to use the re­strooms that cor­re­spond with their gen­der iden­tity.

The state Board of Re­gents ap­proved Olens as KSU pres­i­dent last fall, lead­ing to out­cry and protests from many of the school’s LGBT stu­dents, fac­ulty, staff and al­lies. Now, three months into the job, Olens is be­ing cred­ited with help­ing trans­gen­der stu­dents’ cam­pus ex­pe­ri­ence, but some con­cerns re­main.

Olens de­fends record as at­tor­ney gen­eral

When asked about crit­i­cism of his LGBT record, Sam Olens has re­peat­edly stated he was just do­ing his job as at­tor­ney gen­eral of the state and that that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily re­flect his per­sonal views.

Ref­er­enc­ing the law­suit against the trans­gen­der di­rec­tive, Olens told Ge­or­gia Voice, “It’s not Sam Olens su­ing, it’s the state of Ge­or­gia su­ing. The le­gal con­text is very dif­fer­ent than the po­lit­i­cal con­text. The le­gal is­sue is whether or not the Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion and the Depart­ment of Jus­tice have the le­gal au­thor­ity to change the laws of the Leg­is­la­ture.”

He wouldn’t say what his per­sonal view is on same-sex mar­riage, but he pointed to the smooth tran­si­tion the state had once the Supreme Court ruled in fa­vor of mar­riage equal­ity in June 2015, a tran­si­tion helped by Olens and Gov. Nathan Deal’s vows to fol­low the law of the land. Olens also said he per­son­ally stepped in when pro­bate judges weren’t abid­ing by the de­ci­sion.

“Folks in the LGBT com­mu­nity would call my of­fice and say X pro­bate judge was not fol­low­ing the law, and I would tell that judge to fol­low the law,” he said. “Ge­or­gia should be very proud of the way it han­dled the en­force­ment of the de­ci­sion.”

Trans­gen­der stu­dent com­plaints lead to changes

Prior to tak­ing of­fice, af­ter the Board of Re­gents named him school pres­i­dent, Olens started meet­ing with cam­pus LGBT lead­er­ship to hear their con­cerns – most of whom were lead­ing ral­lies against him just weeks be­fore. Aracely Gar­cia, a KSU stu­dent and pres­i­dent of the Ken­ne­saw Pride Al­liance, was one of the stu­dents Olens met with.

“He was adamant that he would not in­ter­fere with the suc­cess of any GLBTIQ pro­grams on cam­pus,” Gar­cia told Ge­or­gia Voice of the meet­ings. “He said he was de­ter­mined to in­crease the re­ten­tion and grad­u­a­tion rates of the univer­sity, and if the GLBTIQ pro­grams help in­crease those rates, he had no in­ten­tion of re­mov­ing them. We asked him to re­lease an of­fi­cial let­ter to the whole cam­pus from the pres­i­dent’s of­fice sup­port­ing the claims he made to us; he re­leased that let­ter a week or so af­ter our meet­ing. He also of­fered to have an in­for­mal Q&A with GLBTIQ stu­dents if that was some­thing they wanted to do.”

How­ever, Gar­cia said Pres­i­dent Olens needs to do a bet­ter job of reach­ing out to the LGBT stu­dent body at large.

Naysia Cole­man, a KSU alum­nus who serves as a staff mem­ber in GLBTIQ Stu­dent Pro­grams and as co-chair of the Pres­i­den­tial Com­mis­sion on GLBTIQ Ini­tia­tives, said Olens has been sup­port­ive and ea­ger to be en­gaged with the cam­pus com­mu­nity.

One of the top­ics that kept com­ing up dur­ing Olens’ meet­ings with LGBT stu­dent lead­ers was trans­gen­der stu­dents be­ing called by their birth name by pro­fes­sors and fel­low stu­dents.

“Sev­eral trans­gen­der stu­dents have told me that if fel­low stu­dents call them by their given name in­stead of their cho­sen name, they get em­bar­rassed and we don’t want that,” Olens told Ge­or­gia Voice.

Olens then in­structed the school’s chief in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer to get to work chang­ing the school’s De­sire 2 Learn (D2L) class man­age­ment sys­tem.

“Not only did he want to change D2L, but he wanted our IT team to look crit­i­cally at all of our sys­tems to see where le­gal name is nec­es­sary ver­sus un­nec­es­sary,” Cole­man said.

Help with KSU’s changes came cour­tesy of the reg­is­trar at the Univer­sity of Ver­mont, be­lieved to be the first school in the na­tion to make such up­dates to their class man­age­ment sys­tem. Phase one of the ini­tia­tive – let­ting stu­dents list their pre­ferred name in­stead of their given name – will start spring se­mes­ter of this year and phase two, let­ting stu­dents list their pre­ferred pro­noun, will start fall se­mes­ter.

“I have made nu­mer­ous state­ments that I per­son­ally very much sup­port an in­clu­sive, di­verse at­mos­phere and that there should be no in­di­vid­u­als on this cam­pus that should be con­cerned about me per­son­ally af­fect­ing their life­style or cer­tain such de­ci­sions,” Olens said.

It’s those kinds of word choices (“life­style,” “de­ci­sions”) that leave con­cerns for LGBT stu­dents like Gar­cia, who felt Olens was con­de­scend­ing dur­ing his meet­ings with LGBT stu­dent lead­ers. She rec­om­mended that he take part in “safe space” train­ing of­fered through the school’s GLBTIQ Stu­dent Pro­grams. But Cole­man sounded more op­ti­mistic. “De­spite a con­tro­ver­sial start, we have been able to cre­ate a lot of great change in a short amount of time,” she said. “I look for­ward to con­tin­u­ing to work to­gether to en­sure KSU’s legacy of di­ver­sity lives on. To share [Olens’] sen­ti­ments, we can al­ways be do­ing more.”

By PA­TRICK SAUN­DERS —Ken­ne­saw State Univer­sity Pres­i­dent Sam Olens

Fe­bru­ary 3, 2017

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