By Bryann DaSilva
The LGBTQ Caucus hosted an event on Oct. 11 in honor of National Coming Out Day, an internationally observed civil awareness day to celebrate “coming out” as a member of the LGBTQ community or ally. But for those at the Harvard Kennedy School who are already out, an important question lingered: just how many LGBTQ people are there on campus?
The HKS Diversity Statement requires “that our faculty, students, and staff be exposed to and understand a broad array of ideas, insights, and cultures. one crucial element involves attracting superlative people from diverse backgrounds and traditions who vary by their race and ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, physical and mental abilities, political philosophy and intellectual focus.” In service of fulfilling this mission, the school collects demographic data on its students.
Demographic data on race, ethnicity, and gender is collected via the admissions application. The data allows for analysis of trends in the diverse composition of the school.
When students want to know whether, for example, African-American students are underrepresented on campus, these are the numbers to look for.
However, members of the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Queer) community do not have a way to quantify whether they are underrepresented. There is no method to account for recruitment or enrollment efforts because there is no formal inquiry.
The HKS application for admission allows for general self-identification, but nothing specific to the LGBTQ community.
The HKS LGBTQ Caucus is interested in working with the administration, especially Dean Alexandra Martinez at the new Office for Student Diversity and Inclusion, on ways to make HKS a more LGBTQ-welcoming space.
“We want to be part of a proactive strategy towards diversity and inclusion on campus this year,” Helena Pylvainen, President of The LGBTQ Caucus. “Dean Alexandra Martinez has already shown her support for LGBTQ students on campus through her office’s support of our successful welcome reception. We’re looking forward to working with Dean Martinez to increase the number and range of LGBTQ students on campus, especially LGBTQ women and minorities, and having an advocate within the administration is a positive first step toward that goal.”
However, encouraging greater openness does not come without complications. Some members of the LGBTQ community might be hesitant to self-identify, regardless of guarantees that answering the question would count neither toward nor against their chances at admission. An explicit question on the application would have to be constructed carefully.
One way is to explicitly ask the question, but keeping it optional to protect individuals’ privacy. In the fall of 2011, Elmhurst College was the first institution of higher education to add such an optional question to its undergraduate application. The decision was lauded by Campus Pride, a national non-profit working to create safer, more LGBT-inclusive colleges.
The admissions application question asks, “Would you consider yourself to be a member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community?” Students can answer “Yes,” “No,” or “Prefer not to say.”
“The move by Elmhurst administrators to include this question represents a distinct and unique paradigm shift in higher education to actively recognize out LGBT youth populations and to exercise greater responsibility for LGBT student safety,” said Shane Windmeyer, Campus Pride executive director. “For the first time, an American college has taken efforts to identify their LGBT students from the very first moment those students have official contact with them. This is definite progress in the right direction and deserves praise.”
Shortly thereafter, Harvard College started to consider adding language to its application for admission that would allow prospective students to self-identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender, as Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons told The Crimson last fall.
Bryce McKibben, who is active in the LGBTQ community, says that HKS can still be a leader in proactive recruitment by also including an optional question.
“Regardless of the policies we adopt, the Kennedy School needs to recognize that it is actually behind other major universities in the visibility of LGBTQ issues and its students on campus, and that’s a detriment to diverse thought and cultural competency,” he said.”We simply have to do more to recruit and attract a diverse pool of students if we are going to prepare our graduates to effect change and thrive in the modern workplace, public or private.”