Despite the Controversy, We're Glad We Asked

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

October 09, 2011

When we decided this year to make one of our routine annual revisions in the application for undergraduate admission at Elmhurst College, we weren't expecting to make national headlines as a result. But we did. What landed Elmhurst in the media spotlight last month was a new application question. Like some others, the question was optional. It asked: "Would you consider yourself a member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community?"

Like many other institutions, our private liberal-arts college in Chicago's western suburbs, long affiliated with the United Church of Christ, has included optional questions on our admission applications for many years. They ask about matters like ethnic identity, religious affiliation, and languages spoken at home. But this new question generated levels of interest and controversy that those other questions never did.

Our revised application became news when the national organization Campus Pride sent out a press release congratulating us for "setting the bar" by becoming the first college in the United States to ask prospective undergraduates about sexual orientation and gender identity on its application. The Campus Pride release was quickly followed by articles in newspapers, segments on national radio shows, and stories on major news-media Web sites. We hadn't sought this wave of publicity, but we were proud to have so much attention focused on our efforts to build a campus that is diverse, open, and affirming to all students.

Of course, the coverage also occasioned some commentary that challenged our wisdom and motivation. That the new application question produced some controversy will not surprise anyone familiar with online comment strings and call-in radio, which too often are more about heat than light. The application question had placed us in the middle of a national discussion about diversity and sexual identity—one that continues to stir passions and challenge established beliefs.

Perhaps the most common question I heard from our supportive but surprised friends was simply this: Why did we do it? One way of explaining is simply to quote our application, which notes that Elmhurst is "committed to diversity and connecting underrepresented students with valuable resources on campus." For years we have asked students about their personal interests, high-school activities, and faith traditions, among other things, so we can connect them with campus support and gauge their eligibility for certain opportunities, including scholarships.

This year we decided to include self-identified LGBT students in the process. We wanted them to know that they, like all our students, would find abundant resources at Elmhurst to enable them to succeed. We wanted them to know that they would not feel isolated on our campus because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. On the contrary: We clearly, openly, emphatically want them here.

Beyond that, there are substantive reasons to reach out directly to LGBT students, who still experience hostility and discrimination on some campuses. Studies show that they are at significantly higher risk for harassment compared with their heterosexual peers, and many have reported experiencing a difficult or hostile campus climate or actual harassment. A recent survey found that 13 percent of gay students said they feared for their physical safety; the number rises to 43 percent for transgender students.

Media coverage of our decision was overwhelmingly positive, but the public's reaction ran the gamut from grateful praise to harsh criticism, clearly reflecting the sharp divisions over this issue. Most of the negative response was based on a misunderstanding of what the application question says and how responses to the question will be used. One sticking point for some critics was the availability of scholarship money for students who identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Over the years, Elmhurst has awarded what we call Enrichment Scholarships to talented students whose presence would add to the diversity and richness of campus life. Now gay and transgender students are eligible for these scholarships, too. That does not, as some uninformed commentators suggested, deprive another deserving student of a scholarship. We offer scholarships of varying kinds to all qualifying admitted students; they are not capped at a certain number. Thus one student's gain is not another student's loss.

It is becoming ever more clear to educators that students learn best when they engage with a wide spectrum of individuals, both like and unlike themselves—that is, if they are part of a campus community that resembles our diverse society and multicultural world. That's why Elmhurst and many other colleges and universities make an extra effort to recruit students of color, international students, first-generation students, and many others. Encouraging talented, self-identified gay and transgender students to come to Elmhurst enhances the education of every one of our students.

It is also the right thing to do. The United Church of Christ, with which Elmhurst is affiliated, is a Protestant denomination with a long and proud history of shattering our society's color and gender barriers. The tradition that made the church the first mainstream American denomination to ordain an African-American minister, the first to ordain a female minister, and the first to ordain an openly gay minister is one that resonates with our own core values. The church describes itself as "extravagantly welcoming." Elmhurst is, too.

It is possible, as some people have suggested, that students will misrepresent themselves as gay or lesbian on applications solely to qualify for a scholarship. I think it also is unlikely. There have always been opportunities for fraud in the application process, but I have seen no evidence that this happens much at Elmhurst or elsewhere.

It is also possible that some students will object to the question as intrusive or inappropriate. But we hope that many more students will recognize it as part of our sincere effort to meet them, and understand them, as they really are. After all, one of the great aims of higher education is to help students to attain—as Elmhurst's sixth president, the theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, put it—an "effective individuality." That can happen only if students and educators alike are willing to take on the deepest matters of identity with unflinching honesty and open minds.

One of the unanticipated benefits of this episode is the opportunity it has afforded Elmhurst to clearly communicate two of its core values—its unyielding commitment to diversity and profound respect for individuals—to people who previously were unfamiliar with us. I think that those around the country who read or heard about Elmhurst for the first time as a result of our application question encountered a principled institution in the process of uncovering new ways to do right by its students. We are hoping the discussion that resulted from our action encourages other colleges and universities to follow our lead.

S. Alan Ray is president and a professor of religion and society at Elmhurst College.