Harvard gives students more latitude to describe their gender
Buildings in Harvard Yard are reflected in frozen puddle at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Jan. 20, 2015. (Reuters/Brian Snyder)

Harvard University's largest academic division is allowing students register for the new academic year as male, female or transgender and choose which gendered or genderless pronouns they prefer, school officials said Thursday.

The Ivy League school's arts and science college, which enrolls about half of Harvard's 21,000 students, will give them the chance to indicate whether they prefer to use the traditional pronouns "he" and "she" or alternatives including "ze," "hir" or variants of "they."

"If faculty or advisors are inadvertently outing someone by using a name or pronoun that doesn't reflect their authentic self, that is a problem," said Michael Burke, registrar for the university's school of arts and sciences. He noted that the program may be rolled out across Harvard's other schools next year.

Professors will be able to access this information through a new student information system, eliminating what Burke said can sometimes be an awkward conversation about gender identity between professors and their new students.

"If on the first day of class your professor is referring to you as a man, and you identify as a woman, even if you're not trans, you could understand how that might affect you," Burke said. "It's jarring."

The move comes at a time of increased awareness of transgender Americans, with Ohio State University for the first time offering housing for transgender freshman beginning this year and the White House last month saying it had hired its first openly transgender staff member, Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, who was named outreach and recruitment director in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel.

The move is expected to raise few eyebrows in liberal-leaning Massachusetts, which more than a decade ago became the first U.S. state to legalize gay marriage, Burke said.

"This is not a very radical thing here on campus," Burke said. It's not uncommon for me to go to a meeting where people introduce themselves not only by their name and title, but by their gender pronoun."

But a similar move by the University of Tennessee, where a newsletter from the school's Office of Diversity and Inclusion suggested that professors asked students what pronoun they preferred and noted that "ze," "zir" and "zirs" was an option, drew harsh criticism.

"This was a ridiculous overreaction to the dictates of political correctness and has made UT a laughingstock across the nation," said U.S. Representative Duncan, a Tennessee Republican and alumnus of the school.

A spokeswoman for the school described the reaction as a misunderstanding of what had been intended as a guideline, not a change in school policy.

"There is no mandate or official policy to use this language," said the spokeswoman, Lili'a Neville. "We did not by any means intend for it to be interpreted that we wanted our campus community to stop using 'he' and 'she.'"