What Higher Ed CIOs Should Know About Preferred Names and Pronouns

Laura Gogia |

Former Analyst

Top of Mind: What Higher Ed CIOs Should Know About Preferred Names and Pronouns
Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes

Preferred name and pronoun use has been on higher education’s radar for a while now, but interest—particularly in technology support—has increased in the last several years.1 Many of today’s students use preferred names exclusively across public and private settings. Although their reasons vary, the practice is closely associated with transitions in gender identity. Gender-neutral pronoun use is also rising, especially among young Americans. Campus leaders report expectations among prospective, current, and past students that their higher education experience will reflect the same naming and pronoun flexibility that is increasingly available to them in American society.   

Why Names and Pronouns Matter

A person’s name and gender identity are integral to their sense of self. Research indicates that honoring students’ preferred names in the classroom contributes positively to their sense of belongingness and academic success. When an instructor uses a student’s name (and pronounces it correctly), the student is more likely to seek help when needed and express satisfaction with the course. These findings appear to be particularly true in asynchronous online learning environments and underrepresented student groups.

Best practices for sharing pronouns in academic settings are still evolving. However, initial research indicates that honoring a student’s pronouns once shared is associated with higher levels of belongingness, satisfaction, and success—and lower levels of depression, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behavior among transgender and nonbinary students.  

How Institutions Are Responding

Traditionally, faculty managed students’ preferred names and pronouns at the course level, sometimes with institutional guidance and training but often based on individual beliefs and resources. Many institutions still have policies that depend exclusively on faculty to implement pre-class surveys and encourage students to use functionality native to learning management systems. However, these approaches neither guarantee consistency nor address student needs outside the classroom.  

Progressive institutions are seeking more comprehensive and agile technology to support preferred names and pronouns across campus systems and documents—beginning with the system of record and extending to every point of student engagement, including student services, IDs, email addresses, course rosters, and diplomas.2 Ultimately, the goal is to reduce the instances that students must request a name or pronoun change across campus and limit the number of individuals who know the presented name and gender identity are not consistent with the legal name. They also aim to honor and adapt to student and alumni name and pronoun decisions and transitions over time.

Meeting the IT Challenge

The goal of comprehensive preferred name and pronoun support requires institutions to negotiate complex policy, data governance, and technology questions. Tambellini has spoken to campus leaders, including registrars, faculty, student affairs representatives, and technology leaders about their experience of this process. While the details of these conversations will be published in a Tambellini practice guide later this spring, the following technology considerations represent some of the themes that emerged.

  • IT representation is essential. While these initiatives are often led by other campus leaders, IT leaders should anticipate early, hands-on involvement since campus data and technology are so integral to the process.
  • Expect technology limitations. Although student information systems and CRMs support preferred name and pronoun functionality, institutions report that it is often limited—even in next-generation systems. Additionally, many campus point solutions do not adequately support preferred names and pronouns. Workarounds and customizations are generally still required.
  • Tracking information flow is a challenge. The institutions that spoke with Tambellini commented that one of the most resource-intensive aspects of implementing top-to-bottom preferred name use was mapping personal record information flow from one campus system to another. Finding and fixing every displayed name across self-service view, roster, directory, and point solution takes time.    
  • Integration strategy is vital. Understanding information flow also requires comprehensive knowledge of campus system integrations and how they function. Campuses with a systematic approach to integration and rapid data flow will have an easier time implementing complete and agile preferred name and pronoun support.  
  • Design for success. Campus leaders noted that the key to successful end-user implementation was the consistency of information display. For example, understanding how and when faculty access and use student information was an integral first step that many campus leaders took as part of this process.  

1 Preferred names are any chosen name that differ from the student’s legal name (or deadname in the context of gender identity), including nicknames, middle names, Anglicized names, and shortened names. Pronouns (or personal pronouns), commonly include she/her, he/his, they/them, and sometimes ze/hir and replace names in a sentence.

2 The debate on whether diplomas are legal documents requiring the use of legal names is ongoing. Many institutions that are expanding their support for preferred names identify the transcript rather than the diploma as part of the legal record. They allow preferred names and have removed gendered language from diplomas. However, these institutions acknowledge the existence of scenarios (particularly for international students) in which diplomas act as legal documents and counsel students as such.


Share Article:

Laura Gogia |
Former Analyst
Dr. Laura Gogia researches, advises, and publishes at the intersection of pedagogy, student experience, and academic technology. She has extensive experience in online learning design and faculty development across higher education, community, and professional learning contexts. Prior to joining Tambellini Group, Laura served as the director of LX Innovation at iDesign.

Other Posts From this Author:

Realize Your Institution's Goals Faster with The Tambellini Group®

Higher Education Institutions


Solution Providers & Investors

market insights

Become a Client of the Tambellini Group.

Get exclusive access to higher education analysts, rich research, premium publications, and advisory services.

Be a Top of Mind Podcast featured guest

Request a Briefing with a Tambellini Analyst

Suggest your research topics

Subscribe to Tambellini's Top of Mind.

Weekly email featuring higher education blog articles, infographics or podcasts.