Harvard University college allows students to pick their own gender identity, pronoun

Harvard University's school of arts and sciences will now allow students to register as male, female or transgender(Facebook/Harvard University)

The arts and sciences college of Harvard University—an Ivy League university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is the oldest institution of higher learning in the US—is now allowing students to register for the new academic year with their own choice of gender identity and identity pronoun.

The college, which has about half of Harvard's 21,000 students, is reportedly giving enrolees a chance to register as male, female or transgender, or use traditional pronouns "he" or "she," or alternatives like "ze," "hir" or "they."

Michael Burke, registrar of the Harvard arts and sciences school, said: "If faculty or advisors are inadvertently outing someone by using a name or pronoun that doesn't reflect their authentic self, that is a problem."

He said the new policy may be implemented in Harvard's other colleges next school year.

Professors can access the information by using a new student information system to eliminate a sometimes awkward conversation about gender identity between professors and students, he added.

"If on the first day of class your professor is referring to you as a man, and you identify as a woman, even if you're not trans, you could understand how that might affect you. It's jarring," Burke said.

Harvard's new policy comes at a time of heightened awareness about transgenders. For the first time this school year, Ohio State University offered housing for transgender freshmen.

Moreover, the White House hired its first openly transgender staff member, Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, who assumed last month the position of outreach and recruitment director in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel.

Massachusetts, where Harvard is located, became the first US state to legalise gay marriage more than a decade ago.

Burke said the policy "is not a very radical thing here on campus."

"It's not uncommon for me to go to a meeting where people introduce themselves not only by their name and title, but by their gender pronoun," he said.

However, at the University of Tennessee, a newsletter issued by the school's Office of Diversity and Inclusion drew criticism for suggesting that professors should ask their students what pronoun they prefer.

"This was a ridiculous overreaction to the dictates of political correctness and has made UT a laughingstock across the nation," said US Rep. John Duncan, a Tennessee Republican and alumnus of the school.

University spokeswoman Lili'a Neville explained the school's position, saying, "There is no mandate or official policy to use this language. We did not by any means intend for it to be interpreted that we wanted our campus community to stop using 'he' and 'she.'"