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18 October 2011

Praise: Elmhurst College Endeavors to Better Serve LGBTQ Students

Elmhurst College, a private four-year college in Illinois, made the headlines back in August.  The school, affiliated with the United Church of Christ, added a question to its admission form, asking a new and controversial question:

The new application includes the question: “Would you consider yourself a member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community?”  It joins several other questions—related to religious affiliation, language spoken at home, and other factors—that are presented to prospective students as optional, i.e., they can choose whether or not to answer them.

The Elmhurst College page describing the change continues

As the institution notes on the application itself, it asks these optional questions because it is “committed to diversity and connecting underrepresented students with valuable resources on campus.” When a student chooses to answer the optional questions, he or she helps the institution to advance its diversity goals and to connect prospective students with the resources, including scholarships and campus organizations, that the College makes available to students from underrepresented groups. 

“We took this step in an effort to better serve each of our students as a unique person,” says Elmhurst President S. Alan Ray.  “It also allows us to live out our commitments to cultural diversity, social justice, mutual respect among all persons, and the dignity of every individual. These are among the core values of this institution. They provide the foundation for all of our academic, student and community programs.”

The reasons for adding the question to the 2012-2013 admissions application are further explained in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education 

Admissions officers at the Illinois college plan to use the question to connect students with campus programs and services. They will also use it to help determine eligibility for institutional scholarships given to applicants from underrepresented groups.

“We ask a lot of questions in admissions, so we thought, why not ask about this, too?” says Gary Rold, Elmhurst’s dean of admission. “We are trying to recruit students who are academically qualified and diverse, and we consider this another form of diversity.”

A Time Magazine article also explained that while Elmhurst is the first tertiary institution in the United States to ask about students' sexual identity, the answer provided will not affect admissions.

It is not surprising that there were early, albeit fairly timid, complaints from the Family Research Council and The New American among others.  Now, two months later, Equality Matters reports that Fox News has had a pundit session where they are alleging an LGBTQ quota and calling the question divisive.  Thanks to Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters for the heads up about Fox.

Last week Northwestern University graduate students interviewed officials at Elmhurst who are confident that they made the right decision.  

In addition to acquiring data, Rold hopes the question will send a message to applicants.

“I was talking to a representative of a college out in Oregon, a very progressive campus with a large population of gay and lesbian students already enrolled,” [Dean of Admissions Gary Rold] said. “Their stance on it is, ‘We don’t need to ask that question because we are already identified as a very progressive campus.’ We didn’t feel as though there were things about Elmhurst that would necessarily send those signals to students and we felt the application sends a lot of signals.”

The options of “yes,” “no” and “prefer not to answer” appear next to the inquiry on the application. Rold insisted that the answer would not be used for any sort of exclusionary practice.

“Can we assure that the item will not be misused in any way? Yes,” he said. “Is that the same as gay and lesbian students feeling 100 percent secure all the time? I don’t know.”

This would be enough to cheer Elmhurst College, but there is more.  Last week Elmhurst celebrated one of its gay alumni.

Bill Johnson’s advice to young gays and lesbians of Elmhurst and any other “child of God’’ committed to justice and equality is to “get vocal, get visible, get free.” It’s the principle he has followed in the nearly 40 years since his historic battle for ordination in 1972 by the United Church of Christ.

The trail-blazing alumnus, who made history as the first openly gay person to be ordained in modern times by a mainstream Christian church, was honored on October 11 as the College inaugurated the William R. Johnson Guestship, formerly called the LGBT Guestship.

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