WELLESLEY — Students at Wellesley College approved a nonbinding referendum calling on the college to admit transgender men and use more inclusive language in campus communications. But administrators said Wednesday that “there is no plan” to change Wellesley’s admissions policy or its mission as a women’s college.
The administration’s response to the student-led referendum Tuesday night has roiled the campus, frustrating those who said that Wellesley has always enrolled transgender students and that the admissions policies and communications should reflect those gender identities. The college currently admits transgender women and nonbinary persons but says “those assigned female at birth who identify as men are not eligible for admission.”
“As a trans student, you are consistently given the messaging that this is a college for women,” said Greysea McCooe, a junior from Connecticut. “It’s on the website, it’s in the college communications, you get an e-mail and it’s only talking about part of the student body.”
But Wellesley president Paula Johnson said the liberal arts college would not waver.
“Wellesley admits eligible applicants who consistently identify and live as women, including cis, trans and nonbinary students,” Johnson said in a statement. “We will continue to engage all students in the important work of building an inclusive academic community where everyone feels they belong.”
Wellesley is the latest women’s college to grapple with how its founding mission — first articulated in the 19th century — interacts with 21st-century issues of gender. Wellesley has about 2,500 students, and alumni include former US secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright.
Several women’s colleges, including Wellesley, announced in 2015 that they would accept applications from transgender women. Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley has gone further and admits transgender men.
Smith College in Northampton, similar to Wellesley, said it enrolls people who identify as women, including cis, trans, and nonbinary women. Any student who transitions to male once enrolled “has the full support of the college,” a spokesperson for Smith said in an e-mail.
Likewise, Spelman College, a historically Black women’s college in Atlanta, admits women and transgender women, but not transgender men.
At Wellesley, a steady stream of students stopped by a table in the campus student center Wednesday selling T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Trans Students Belong at Wellesley.”
Marty Martinage, a junior from Virginia who was working the table, pointed out that the campus already has a population of transgender men and nonbinary individuals, “and they deserve to be recognized.”
They added that Wellesley was founded to educate women who were marginalized by a “patriarchal society.” Martinage believes the college’s mission should evolve to include all those who feel “at home in this community,” and also have something to lose under a patriarchal society.
“I hope the college recognizes that while they might think we are just young and further left students now, eventually we will be alumni giving to the school,” Martinage said. “If there is not a significant change in how they communicate with students, I’m worried about the future of the college.”
In recent weeks, Johnson voiced her opposition to the student ballot, saying Wellesley’s mission as a women’s college remains relevant today as female reproductive rights in the United States are threatened and women’s freedoms and access to education are stripped away across the globe.
Several students said that nonbinary and transgender individuals also face increased threats and violence.
“This is a community where people of marginalized genders can feel safe,” said Cricket Liebermann, a senior from Vermont, who was selling the T-shirts.
The referendum was meant to be an opportunity for student voices to be heard, the college said. In a run-up to the vote, Johnson wrote in a March 6 letter to students and staff that the college will take steps to support its diverse campus community, including having student pronouns appear in internal systems to reduce instances of students being misgendered. Johnson said the college will also add more all-gender bathrooms.
“I believe the two ways of seeing Wellesley are not mutually exclusive,” she wrote. “Rather, this is who we are: a women’s college and a diverse community.”
The college did not release the tally from the referendum, but a survey by students showed 765 votes in support, 65 against, and 19 abstained.
More than 600 faculty, staff, and alumni signed a letter to Johnson and the college’s board voicing support for student organizers working “to bring inclusive language and admissions policies to the college.”
Isha Gupta, a 2021 Wellesley graduate, said she had many transgender and nonbinary peers as classmates and believes the college should update its mission to be more inclusive of the student population it serves.
“President Johnson used to say we are trying to push Wellesley into the 21st century,” Gupta said. “The first part of that is making sure Wellesley is an institution that can accept the realities of the 21st century where we are having more transparent and inclusive conversations about these topics.”
McCooe, the junior from Connecticut, said student organizers are planning peaceful protests, including sit-ins at administrative buildings, to continue pushing campus leaders to recognize student concerns.
“It just feels like a disconnect between Wellesley as we know it to be and Wellesley as it is trying to be positioned and marketed by the college,” McCooe said. “We do understand that these things take time and we want to give them a chance to say that our concerns will start to be taken seriously.”
Hilary Burns can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Hilarysburns.