Avoid ‘deadnaming’: How universities and colleges can get ahead of preferred name usage

Having a considered and thorough policy in place to address preferred name usage is preferable to ad hoc or case-by-case determinations to grant such requests for a few reasons.

Universities and colleges across the nation are receiving more frequent requests by students to identify themselves by a preferred or chosen name in place of the student’s legal name. Students wish to utilize a preferred name in lieu of a legal name for a variety of reasons. Using a preferred name can be especially important and beneficial for transgender and gender nonbinary students. Typically, preferred names are only applicable to a student’s first name.

Kathleen E. Dion (left) and Janet Kljyan are attorneys with Robinson+Cole.

Many universities have already established “preferred name” policies, many of which are available on the schools’ website. Having a considered and thorough policy in place to address preferred name usage is preferable to ad hoc or case-by-case determinations to grant such requests for a few reasons. First, having a policy that students and administrators can freely access and review will facilitate the process of establishing a preferred name and ensure students have the opportunity to do so at the beginning of their college career. Second, having a policy that students and administrators must follow will help foster consistency and potentially avoid allegations of discrimination or disparate treatment that may arise from case-by-case determinations. Third, having an established process for choosing a preferred name will allow students to do so conveniently and confidentially. For example, the policy can require that new programs and software acquired by the institution be capable of accommodating student preferred names.

In establishing preferred name policies, universities and colleges may want to review a number of considerations, including: (1) the logistics of establishing and utilizing a preferred name, (2) matters requiring the use of a legal name, and (3) identifying instances that may warrant rejecting a student’s request to use a preferred name.

First, administrators may want to consider how a student can submit their preferred name to the school and have that name be distributed to the appropriate channels such that students can have their preferred name appear on school identification cards, online systems and profiles, and class rosters. This may require collaboration between different departments, such as the IT department and Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice. Students have protested when internal platforms were inconsistent, causing them to be inadvertently outed.

Second, institutions will also want to identify instances in which the school is required by law to use a student’s legal name, and instances in which the school’s systems or other business processes require the use of a legal name. Such instances may include student transcripts, diplomas, health records, tax forms and financial aid documentation.  Special consideration should be given to instances in which the school also acts as an employer of the student.

Third, administrators should also consider how frequently they wish to permit a student to change their preferred name and whether students under the age of 18 will be permitted to use a preferred name without parental consent. Many universities prohibit utilizing a preferred name that is offensive, inappropriate, misrepresentative or used for a fraudulent purpose.

In conclusion, administrators of schools that do not yet have a preferred name policy should consider investing in establishing one. It may be advisable to seek legal counsel in doing so.

Kathleen E. Dion is chair of Robinson+Cole’s Education Industry Team. Kate represents private schools, colleges, and universities in a variety of civil matters, such as tuition disputes, allegations of staff misconduct, and Title IX matters.

Janet Kljyan is a commercial and civil litigator with extensive experience helping businesses and other institutional clients litigate and resolve their disputes across an array of industries, including education, technology, financial services, manufacturing, commercial real estate, and nonprofits. She is a member of Robinson+Cole’s Business Litigation Group.

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