An In-Depth Look at Changes to the Scripps Admissions Policy

By Shannon Miller '16 & Hannah Bottum '17

This past week, Scripps College announced proposed changes to their admissions policies, specifically regarding transgender students. The Scripps proposal will be considered by the College's Board of Trustees in December.

Earlier this semester, over 580 Scripps students—more than half of the approximately 1,000-person student body—signed a petition in support of a transgender-inclusive admission policy. The student petition supported a policy which stated:

"The following students can apply for admission consideration regardless of factors including, but not limited to, legal status, medical history, gender pronouns used throughout academic recommendations and documents:

  • Cisgender women
  • Transgender women
  • Transgender men
  • Other genders (i.e. non-binary, genderqueer, etc.)

The following students cannot apply for admission consideration:

  • Cisgender men."

For those unfamiliar with this language, here is a brief explanation of these terms:

  • A cisgender (cis for short) woman is someone who identifies as a woman whose sex was assigned female at birth;
  • A transgender (trans for short) woman is someone who identifies as a woman whose sex was assigned male at birth;
  • A trans man is someone who identifies as a man whose sex was assigned female at birth;
  • A non-binary or genderqueer person is someone whose gender identity does not fit into the man/woman gender binary;
  • A cis man is someone who identifies as a man whose sex was assigned male at birth.

For more detailed explanations, see GLAAD's media reference guide for transgender issues or TSER's terminology definitions.

The College's recommendation to its Board of Trustees differed from the policy that Scripps students proposed. The administration's proposal covered students "assigned female at birth and/or who self-identify as a woman at the time of application," which does not include students assigned male at birth who identify as non-binary or genderqueer, though welcomes female-assigned non-binary people. The student proposal would have considered any non-binary identified students, regardless of the sex they were assigned at birth.

Scripps is not the only women's college reexamining its admissions policies regarding different gender identities. Mills College in Oakland, California and Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts both began accepting transgender students this fall, though their specific policies differ in a few crucial ways.

Similar to the current Scripps recommendation, the Mills policy considers "self-identified women and people assigned female at birth who do not fit into the gender binary," which excludes trans men and male-assigned non-binary students from applying. The policy at Mount Holyoke, meanwhile, is more expansive than Mills' policy or Scripps' recommendation. Like the Scripps student petition proposed, Mount Holyoke welcomes students of all gender identities except for cisgender men. At all three schools, trans men who did not identify as such upon applying but transitioned after matriculating are welcome to stay and complete their education.

Background on the Scripps Policy Recommendation

Adriana di Bartolo, the Director of the Queer Resource Center (QRC) for the Claremont Colleges, explained her role in the process in an interview with The Forum, saying, "I first did a training for the Student Affairs Committee of [Scripps’] Board of Trustees, and that was a really great moment. I think there were some folks who had different ideas of language, how to talk about trans issues, really almost how to talk about issues around gender, and the group includes administrators at Scripps, Board members, faculty, and students, and I think the overall feeling, and my feeling running this, is I felt hearts shift in the room." The Scripps Board received the same QRC training undergone by RAs at both Claremont McKenna and Scripps.

Di Bartolo is enthusiastic about the prospects for the administration's recommendation. As for the differences between the student and administrative recommendations for the Board, di Bartolo understood why some students were dissatisfied with the final version. However, she explained, "you need to think about the Board, and their experience at Scripps, and what will actually pass. And if this thing will pass—and it’s only the beginning, it’s not forever—this is an amazing first step." In the future, the policy can be broadened to include male-assigned non-binary students, because "Our student bodies are changing; we have to change our policies to meet our student bodies."

Di Bartolo noted that "we have to remember" that the administrators at Scripps "have to have their finger on the pulse of the Board and know what’s going to pass, keeping in mind how they want to move forward." She also commended the Scripps administration for its ability to get this recommendation through on the timeline that they did; "they’re moving forward in a way that’s much quicker than we all thought—folks are on board and they’re ready for it." While many students are still pushing for the broader and clearer proposal from their petition, di Bartolo emphasized that "this might take a little bit longer to have it really, fully inclusive the way folks want it, but this might be what’s going to pass right now."

Di Bartolo also commented on the way the policy impacts the definition of Scripps as a women's college. "I think that women’s colleges were founded as a space that folks could go and learn and grow and engage in academic risks, in a space where they’re not going to experience gender discrimination. If that’s the goal of a women’s college," she said, "then how wonderful to be able to go there and not experience gender discrimination, and be able to learn and grow and take educational risks. So I think it comes down to, what is the academic mission?" Di Bartolo explained that what it will mean to keep the school's mission in mind is "to keep that momentum going, and I think if we’re so concerned with what people’s sex assignment is—I mean, come on, folks. Let’s get it together."

Mills College

The Forum was able to discuss the broadening of Mills' admissions policy with Brian O'Rourke, Vice President for Enrollment Management at Mills College. In an email to The Forum, O'Rourke wrote that, "As a women’s college, Mills has a long tradition of challenging gender stereotypes and traditional gender roles," and "We also felt it was important to reaffirm our identity as a women’s college as part of this policy." He added that "there was certainly some concern on the part of students, alumnae, and the others in the campus community that development of this policy would be seen as the first step in consideration of becoming a coed institution and we wanted to make certain to be clear that this was not the case."

O'Rourke also addressed the process of updating the policy and the different factors that impacted their final product. "In terms of how we came to the decision of who would be included as eligible for admission," he wrote, "it was a combination of examining the practice we currently had in place, our mission as an institution, and Title IX considerations." Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments mandates that "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

The Mills policy also concretely affirmed something that had already been informally practiced at the College, which is that trans men who transition during their time at Mills—including, for example, Mills' current student body president Skylar Crownover, Mills '16, a trans man—are still welcome members of the school's community after transitioning. In an October 2014 interview with OaklandNorth, Crownover explained, “The more I am able to socially live my life as male-identified, the more I grapple with whether I should stay at Mills,” he said. “But I think that the policy and the way that it is written, has been really influential. It makes it clear that I am welcome to stay and finish.”

Mount Holyoke College

Morgan Flanagan-Folcarelli, a sophomore at Mount Holyoke, was excited about her school's changes. "One of the things I find most beautiful about a women’s college is that it provides a safe and empowering space for people who are disadvantaged in a patriarchal society. That’s the fundamental point: women’s colleges were created to support and educate a minority group whose rights and status in society were limited," she explained.

"Mount Holyoke’s recent decision to implement a trans-inclusive admissions policy was based on an understanding—advocated for by both current students and trans* activists outside of the community—that gender minorities as a whole are disadvantaged when it comes to receiving the type of education and support that women’s colleges were originally formed to provide," Flanagan-Folcarelli continued. "The admission of trans* and genderqueer students is therefore merely an extension of the original aim of a women’s college, and not a deviation from it."

Lynn Pasquerella, the President of Mount Holyoke College, added in an email to The Forum that in the development of the policy, "we considered what it means to be a women's college in the context of a commitment to diversity and inclusion that challenges gender binaries," with the understanding that "categorization as a woman is not independent of political and social ideologies." To that end, President Pasquerella explained the importance of acknowledging that "gender identity is not reducible to the body" when considering admissions policies and defining who can and cannot apply to a women's college.

"From our perspective," at Mount Holyoke, she continued, "it is the positionality that biological women, transwomen, and male-assigned students with nonbinary identities share that is relevant when women’s colleges open their gates for those aspiring to live, learn, and thrive within a community of women."

Finally, President Pasquerella noted that "While we remain committed to our mission as a women's college, we could not simultaneously contest notions of a gender binary while forcing people who identify as neither to adhere to that binary."

Flanagan-Folcarelli also commented on the fact that Mount Holyoke's policy is unique from others, in that "along with its inclusion of transwomen it also explicitly states an understanding that those assigned female at birth who do not identify as female, as well as those assigned male at birth who identify as anything other than male, also face many obstacles similar to and unique from those of ciswomen," which is why a women's college, in the school's view, is an appropriate community for them to join. "What makes Mount Holyoke’s policy great is that it is not a 'women-only' policy that has come to accept the womanhood of transwomen, but a positionality policy that has come to accept the common struggles of gender minorities, and the importance of a community that uplifts us all."

Issues of Inclusion

In regards to the Scripps policy changes, Flanagan-Folcarelli noted, "I think the proposed policy at Scripps is certainly a strong step in the right direction, but it, like the Mills College policy, fails to come to the same explicit understanding of a commonality of discrimination, oppression, and disadvantage among minority gender groups." She added, "Women’s colleges can be safe and empowering spaces for so many different people—I think it’s a shame that many are still reluctant to acknowledge and embrace their full potential by broadening their standards of inclusivity."

Eden Amital SC '17, a sophomore at Scripps who was involved in drafting the language of the student position that was circulated this semester, was both supportive and critical of the Scripps proposal. "The senior team’s recommended policy is fairly inclusive—it will, if passed in December, open admission up to cisgender women, transgender women, transgender men, and female assigned at birth non-binary folks," she wrote to The Forum. In this respect, the Scripps recommendation partially satisfies Scripps students' requests.

"I see two major problems with [the recommendation]," Amital continued, "the first being its vague and confusing language and the second being that it would not consider male assigned at birth non-binary folks eligible applicants. The student-written policy that we got over 580 Scripps students to sign in support of would open admission up to male assigned at birth non-binary folks, and is written using clear and specific language."

Furthermore, Amital felt that certain attitudes towards the language in question had an impact the administration's decision. "Why is the Scripps administration afraid to include the word 'transgender' in its policy?" she asked. "The Scripps that I want to be a part of celebrates and centers its trans students instead of hiding them."

A student at Scripps who preferred to remain anonymous conjectured that the increased pressure on the Scripps administration and the Board of Trustees to make policy changes played a role in differences in student and administrative recommendations. Given the relative newness of much of the language regarding transgender identities, particularly lesser-known terms like "non-binary" and "genderqueer," the student speculated that the Trustees may be more hesitant to accept a policy that allows male-assigned individuals who identify as "non-binary" to be included in the policy due to a lack of understanding of non-binary gender identities. The student emphasized the importance of the Trustees being educated on these issues and understanding the nuances of any policy they must consider.

Adriana di Bartolo expressed a similar position in our interview. "Folks are just barely getting to understand what it means to be transgender," she told us, "and I think this non-binary piece is just not even in some people’s realms of imagination or thought, because to them, at least trans folks still stay within the binary. But I think the conversation is there," she added, and that conversation can push the College forward in the future, just as the dial has moved in recent decades to get us to where we are today. "I mean, being a lesbian was scary in the 1980s here," she noted. Despite the different levels of understanding about gender identity issues among the parties involved in Scripps' proposal, di Bartolo said that "it’s been really amazing to see different generations of folks come together to talk about a really sensitive topic."

When asked about the proposed changes at Scripps, Mount Holyoke's President Pasquarella explained, "Each institution needs to articulate a policy that is consistent with their mission and values. I applaud the deep and abiding commitment to shared governance demonstrated by the Scripps administration in arriving at the proposed policy, as well as their leadership in fostering diversity and inclusion in championing women's education."

Scripps College President Lori Bettison-Varga was traveling and could not be reached for comment.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, Adriana di Bartolo's last name was incorrectly referenced as "Bartolo" rather than "di Bartolo."