Diversity and Democracy

Graphing Institutional Change Toward More Inclusive Environments

For over forty years, students and faculty have worked to better include the perspectives and experiences of women, people of color, and people who identify as LGBTQ in the culture and curriculum of higher education. But progress has been slow and piecemeal, particularly in the case of LGBTQ identities. The Consortium of Directors of LGBT Resources in Higher Education currently lists only 184 campuses that have at least one half-time staff person whose job description includes "primary responsibility for providing LGBT services" (2011). Even fewer institutions provide LGBTQ-specific curricula: there is no national organization for LGBTQ studies, and a compilation of programs in the United States and Canada lists only fifty-seven undergraduate LGBTQ studies programs (forty-nine of which offer only a minor), nineteen master's programs, and only one conferring a PhD (Younger 2011).

Given this reality, I am fortunate to serve as director of the LGBTQA Center at the University of Vermont (UVM), ranked by the national Campus Climate Index as among the best at adopting practices, policies, and structures that are inclusive of people identifying as LGBTQ (Windmeyer 2011). But the climate at UVM was not always so welcoming. The university's current success is the result of a long institutional change process that has transformed UVM from a school with almost no LGBTQ-specific resources in 1998 to among the most LGBTQ-affirming.

A Tipping Point?

How did UVM experience such a dramatic transformation? Last February I presented on this question at the California Institute of Integral Studies' Expanding the Circle Conference on Creating an Inclusive Environment in Higher Education for LGBTQ Students and Studies. For my presentation, I graphed how the climate for LGBTQ people at UVM had changed over time. I taped two sheets of easel paper together, divided the top and bottom with a horizontal line, and created a series of vertical bands to represent time periods. Then I plotted events according to my subjective sense of how they had affected UVM's LGBTQ climate, farther above or below the horizontal line according to whether they seemed more negative or more positive. The graphed points spread in a pattern similar to that described by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point (2000), with almost imperceptible shifts followed by a seemingly sudden, sustained burst of activity. Seeing this, I wondered: What was UVM's "tipping point"?

It was tempting to single out the establishment of an LGBTQA Center in 1999, but the graph showed many points that originated from other places. The mid 1990s included both the horrifying murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming and, on the opposite side of the line, the arrival on UVM's campus of a new tenure-track faculty member who possessed critical interpersonal and intellectual skills and a clear vision for bringing LGBTQ concerns from the margins to the center. This faculty member acted as what Gladwell might characterize as amaven and a salesman: she envisioned new possibilities and convinced others of their value. She helped lead efforts to establish the LGBTQA Center and obtained approval for UVM's first LGBTQ-focused course in 2002. When the LGBTQA Center and student activists began advocating for the inclusion of gender identity and expression in UVM's nondiscrimination and harassment policies, she helped that effort succeed in 2005.

But the key to institutional change lies in more than just one individual or the strategic actions of one office. Another faculty member worked to establish UVM's Sexuality and Gender Identity Studies minor in 2007. Many other LGBTQ people and their advocates have served on the President's Commission on LGBT Equity and spoken up in other public forums over the years. UVM's LGBTQ people and their advocates have been coming out since the first National Coming Out Week celebration in 1991. UVM's experience suggests that Gladwell is right: change can be contagious, drawing in more people as it gains momentum.

On the Forefront of Change

UVM is a national leader in LGBTQ issues today due to efforts made by the LGBTQA Center in partnership with many LGBTQA students, staff, and faculty. Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of transgender support. In 2002, the center assigned a graduate intern to interview transgender students about their experiences on campus. The resulting report detailed transgender students' concerns about safe bathroom access and housing, their distress at being outed in classrooms by faculty using inappropriate pronouns, and their anguish at being confronted by campus staff when their identification cards seemed incongruent with their presenting gender.

The center shared the report with administrators, leading to a series of collaborative projects. UVM increased the number of gender-neutral bathrooms on its main campus to almost four dozen in 2003. It identified housing and gym facilities with private showers in 2004. In 2005, the dean of students enabled trans students to carry a student ID that displayed their chosen name, and in 2009, UVM added a preferred name option to its student information system (Tilsley 2010).

With support from the LGBTQA Center, UVM students launched the Translating Identity Conference (TIC) on transgender issues in higher education in 2003. Hundreds of UVM students, staff, faculty members, and administrators have attended over the years. TIC has educated advocates for transgender issues, inspired faculty to add trans-specific content to courses, and signaled to potential applicants that UVM is a welcoming place for transgender students. Although TIC's founders graduated in 2005, the conference remains faithful to its mission and is a singular source of pride and empowerment for many LGBTQ students and their advocates.

A Dynamic Interplay

Ultimately, every cluster of data points on my graph represents a dynamic interplay of personal histories and symbolic acts. I offer an example from my own life: In 1980, as an undergraduate at a conservative southern university, I was involved in a same-sex relationship but lacked any form of LGBTQ identity or community. Only one of my teachers challenged traditional norms of patriarchy and heteronormativity, by using feminist perspectives to frame course content. Her course awakened me to a different way of seeing the world and myself in it.

I came out and moved to Vermont in 1986, and was surprised to discover my former professor living there as a member of the "women's community." She was out in her personal life but closeted among faculty. More than a decade had passed when, at a speakout I helped organize for UVM's National Coming Out Day, this professor walked resolutely toward the microphone, her voice trembling as she came out publicly on campus for the first time.

Watching her on that rainy October day, I felt our personal histories circle and reconnect. This professor's teaching had opened a door to a world of new ideas that prepared me to participate in activism that, in turn, opened a door to new social possibilities for her. She stepped through that door in a public manner sure to inspire another generation of students. Our paths crossed, separated, and crossed again, spurring individual actions that helped move our community and our campus forward.

That is the nature of social and institutional change: they take time, gathering energy from symbolic acts; gaining momentum from every voice, connection, and action; churning toward transformation with the erratic power of an ocean wave. Every campus will build that energy and momentum differently, but when they do, their collective efforts will combine in a surge of greater LGBTQ inclusion across higher education.


Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals. 2011. Directory.http://www.lgbtcampus.org/directory.

Gladwell, Malcolm. 2000. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Tilsley, Alexandra. 2010. "Colleges Rewrite Rules to Accommodate Transgender Students."Chronicle of Higher Education, June 27. http://chronicle.com/article/Colleges-Rewrite-Rules-to-A/66046.

Windmeyer, Shane. 2011. LGBT-Friendly Campus Climate Index.http://www.campusclimateindex.org.

Younger, John G. 2011. "University LGBT/Queer Programs." http://people.ku.edu/~jyounger/lgbtqprogs.html.

Dorothea Brauer is the director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Advocate (LGBTQA) Center at the University of Vermont.


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