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Decision on UND gender inclusion policy could take months

UND President Andrew Armacost, at a press conference on Jan. 14, said he instructed his staff to slowly proceed with reviewing the policy.

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UND President Andrew Armacost speaks to the Herald during an editorial board meeting in February 2020, a few months prior to the start of his presidency. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald

GRANDS FORKS — UND’s draft policy on gender inclusion, which has drawn the ire of a religious group as well as some local leaders , will likely remain in draft form for months while university policy makers mull over whether to implement it, rescind it or rework it.

UND President Andrew Armacost, at a press conference on Friday, Jan. 14, said he instructed his staff to slowly proceed with reviewing the policy, as well as to seek additional input on the document, after first hearing concerns from the North Dakota Catholic Conference in October last year.

The organization issued a letter to its constituents on Tuesday, in which it urged parents to consider whether such a policy would create a hostile environment to Catholic students, as they begin to make decisions on where to attend university. It raised a number of concerns about the policy that included the possibility of students being required to share a dorm room with a student not of the same legal sex, and the possibility of facing punishment for not using a person’s preferred pronouns.

Armacost addressed concerns raised in the letter one by one, calling some of them not true, while clarifying others. Early in the conference he expressed his desire to create a campus that is inclusive of all students, staff and faculty.

“I have an unwavering commitment to ensure each and every human being on our campus is treated with dignity and respect and is afforded protections under the law,” he said.

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Armacost clarified that a student would not be in violation of the policy if they misgendered another student, in some situations. Doing so accidentally or unintentionally does not raise to the level of a violation, but doing so on purpose could be considered a violation if it is found to be “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive.”

Armacost said the claim that students would be housed by their “expressed gender” is not true. It was a particular concern in the Catholic Conference’s letter, which was written by Christoper Dodson, the groups executive director.

Students, Armacost said, are assigned housing based on their legal sex. Students who say their gender expression is different than their legal sex must work with the university’s housing office to find a solution. All involved parties need to be in agreement, in cases where students who don’t share the same sex are to be housed together. Students can also change rooms for any reason they wish.

“The language in the draft policy is intended to offer assurance that trans and gender non-conforming students will be provided access to housing consistent with their gender identity,” Armacost said.

Armacost also called another statement in the letter “misleading” that indicates all UND freshmen are required to stay in a dorm. While generally true, he noted that exceptions have been made to the rule.

In an email sent to media members shortly after the conference, Dodson agreed with the university’s desire to create a campus free of harassment. Still, he called the gender inclusion policy too broad, and indicated it needs to be reworked, particularly about housing.

“We appreciate the clarification on the housing issue,” Dodson wrote. “Future iterations of the proposal, if any, should clearly address this issue. Students should not, however, have to rely on receiving an exemption to the on-campus housing policy or requesting a roommate change to ensure that the student is placed with someone of the same sex.”

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Dodson also offered a clarification of his own. At the conference, Armacost said he was confused by the timing of the Catholic Conference’s letter, saying it creates an unnecessary sense of urgency, since there is no immediate intention to adopt the policy, and that it is still being worked on.

The letter, Dodson wrote, was not sent to parents of UND students, but to students in Catholic high schools, and some parishioners with high school-aged children, to make them aware of a possible policy at UND, as they get set to decide where they want to go to college.

“Its ‘urgency,’ as President Armacost put it, was related to the fact that Catholic high school students and parents will soon be making decisions about college plans and the bishops felt that they should be aware of possible policy,” he wrote. “It was not directed at the university, its students, or those students’ parents.”

Armacost said he reached out to Dodson and assured him that his concerns are being taken seriously. He noted that while they disagree about the policy, they both agree that the campus should be free of harassment.

Issues surrounding UND gender inclusion policy likely won’t be decided soon. Armacost said any number of outcomes could happen in the policy’s continuing review: it could be adopted as is, it could be revised or be scrapped.

The policy could also be proverbially sliced up, with sections of it ending up in other policies. Administrators could also wind up using existing policy to deal with gender inclusion.

“I would anticipate that to take a process of months, and we're in no hurry,” Armacost said. “I know the public is now watching us very carefully, but I think we need to make sure that we get this right.”

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