UW trans students can now choose their preferred names on diplomas, thanks to the efforts of a graduate student
Vern Harner spent a lot of time and emotional energy fighting to get their chosen name on their diploma at their previous school before heading to the University of Washington to begin a social welfare doctorate. Given the UW’s reputation as an LGBTQIA+-friendly environment, Harner didn’t expect to have to do it all over again as they neared graduation in Seattle.
Many fellow trans people had asked the same question: Why can’t I have my chosen name on my diploma? “A lot of folks were surprised that this was still a battle that had to be fought in 2021,” Harner says. “We’re hearing from places like UDub that they value diversity, they value what I bring as a trans person doing trans work. But then they won’t put my name on the diploma? Those things are at odds, right?”
University Registrar Helen Garrett agreed with Harner and their list of reasons the policy should be changed—individual preference, professional clarity and personal safety among them. When she came to the UW in 2016, Garrett had overseen the University’s adoption of a preferred-name practice—students can choose whatever names they would like on their university records.
She was sympathetic to the idea. But UW policy required a legal name on diplomas, and Garrett didn’t have the power to change that. The decision rested with the faculty senate.
Garrett outlined steps the senate needed to take to change the policy permanently. Harner, who completed their degree last spring and is now an assistant professor of social work at UW Tacoma, decided to make sure it happened.
Armed with a petition containing nearly 32,000 signatures and with support from UAW 4121, the union of academic student employees and postdocs, Harner contacted faculty senate leaders. To them, in retrospect, the request seemed obvious. “Of course, you should be able to put whatever name you want on your diploma,” says Chris Laws, former faculty senate chair. “You work hard for that diploma and it’s yours.”
Obvious or not, the process took time. First, there were new procedures to work out with the registrar. Then there was a process of approval from the senate and the provost’s office. Graduates receiving diplomas in September 2021 were the first to have the option to use their preferred names. It took a few steps, but trans students will not have to fight this fight again. “The moral of the story,” Garrett says, “is if you want to impact change, you’ll want to find what are the systems and who is in charge, and that’s exactly what happened here. This is a good lesson for any student to learn. Following through on those processes will give hope to other students.”
“This is a real testament to how well shared governance works at the University of Washington,” Laws says. “People sometimes like to talk about how the governance system is clunky or doesn’t work. It does work. And this is a very clear example of how students and faculty and administration came together to solve problems in a very effective way.”
Harner hopes this process will make clear that there is still work to do to make all students feel welcome and hopes that University leadership will seek out other disconnects. “I know that to some extent there is an awareness of these issues there,” they say. “But I’d like for folks in power across campus to make these changes before a student has to become a squeaky wheel.”
Graduating students who wish to use a name other than the one on their UW record can fill out the Diploma Name and Address Form linked on this page.