UW News

June 8, 2022

UW doctoral student leads effort to change diploma name policy, demonstrating power of trans community

Person wearing Western shirt smiling with grass and trees in the background

Vern Harner, a doctoral student in social work at the UW, launched a petition that called for the UW to allow chosen names on diplomas. The UW announced it was changing its diploma name policy in December 2021

As a UW doctoral student in social work, Vern Harner studies how the transgender community comes together to support each other. Harner, who is trans, has personal experience with the topic.

“The narrative that we hear in the media is how hard it is to be trans,” they said. “Like with any marginalized experience — yeah, there are difficulties. But the experience of being trans is more about joy and community for me.”

Last year, UW registrar Helen Garrett announced that, for the first time, the UW would allow graduates to use their chosen first and last names for their diplomas, effective July 2021. The policy change was the result of efforts led by Harner and a change.org petition that earned over 30,000 signatures, demonstrating the power of the trans community.

With the policy change, graduates now can submit the name they want listed on their diploma. Graduates from past years also can request a replacement diploma.

Prior to the policy change, UW only allowed full legal names on diplomas. If students had adopted another name — for example, because their gender no longer matched what was assigned to them at birth — then their identity wasn’t reflected on this important document.

Harner, who is graduating this summer, said that every graduate deserves a diploma they can be proud of after the years of hard work it takes to earn a degree. Students go to class, and in many cases also teach and publish, using their chosen names. Seeing a diploma with anything else “feels really empty.”

A name mismatch on a diploma also might inadvertently out a trans individual and threaten their safety, Harner said. Using the chosen name shows the university’s commitment to each graduate.

“It’s about that recognition and that feeling of seeing yourself on that diploma that you work so hard for,” they said. “But it’s not only about the name. It’s about how we treat trans people in our culture and how we treat people generally when it comes to respecting self-identification, autonomy and differences.”

When Harner was graduating with a master’s degree from Arizona State University, they discovered that ASU had a restrictive policy around diploma names. Harner talked to a supervisor in the registrar’s office, and their chosen name was included on their diploma. But ASU didn’t make a universal policy change.

Managing your identity

The Personal Data webpage provides the most current information on how students can manage their identity at the UW, including how they can change four different name types, indicate their gender and process a formal Student Record name change.

At the UW, Harner again contacted the registrar’s office and learned about the university’s policy. They decided it was time to work toward a lasting change that applied to everyone.

“For some of my students, especially if they’re first-generation, the diploma is really powerful,” Harner said. “It was heartbreaking and frustrating for me to see my students graduating and saying, ‘They’re making me put my legal name on my diploma.’ That really kicked my butt into gear.”

In spring 2021, Harner contacted Garrett, the registrar, about the policy and learned that the Faculty Senate had to approve any change. Harner then reached out to Chris Laws, the incoming chair of the Faculty Senate. Both Garrett and Laws told Harner they were personally supportive, but Laws told them that the Faculty Senate doesn’t meet over the summer.

Harner knew that the Faculty Senate had a lot on its plate, especially in the middle of the pandemic, and that there was work to do to make sure that the policy change stayed on its list of priorities. That’s where their knowledge about community and community organizing came into use.

On July 9, 2021, Harner launched a petition drive titled “Demand UW Allow Trans Student Chosen First Names on Diplomas.” They reached out to their network of students, the Q Center, LGBTQIA+ community groups and UAW 4121, the labor union representing UW academic workers and postdoctoral researchers.

Word spread. After 24 hours, the petition had 1,000 signatures, and after the first week, it had 3,500. The petition ended up with nearly 32,000 signatures. It also included hundreds of comments from people sharing their support and experiences. People spoke to the harm of policies that don’t affirm the trans community and how the current policy might dissuade people from sending their children to the UW.

Over the next several months, Harner emailed Laws for updates, talked to the UW Daily and kept the effort moving forward. They also drew on experience growing up as a young queer person in Nebraska, knowing when to push but not push too hard. The work paid off.

Garrett announced the policy change on Dec. 17 and Harner was ecstatic. They thanked Garrett and Laws for their action on the issue as well as the those who showed grassroots support.

“The Office of the University Registrar, along with the registrars at UW Tacoma and UW Bothell, are glad we can now offer students the ability to decide the name they want to appear on their diploma,” Garrett said. “We take the self-sovereignty of student identity very seriously and endorse any enrollment process that allows for this. We so appreciate the leadership demonstrated by Vern Warner to move the diploma name policy along our roadmap, and welcome continued partnership and feedback from our students anytime.”

Harner said the policy change around diploma names makes the UW more inclusive, sending the signal to trans students and researchers that they are welcome here.

Still, there continue to be barriers for trans and other marginalized people to take part in academia — at the UW and across academia. Change needs to occur if higher education is going to live up to its ideals and produce research that improves people’s lives, especially when the research is about marginalized communities, Harner said.

“It’s really important to me that the work about a community is driven by the community itself,” they said. “For me, it’s really just about being embedded in my community and letting what I’m hearing drive the work — not just my own curiosity as a researcher. It’s about what’s going to be impactful.”

Clarification on 6/9: The policy change allows students to indicate their chosen first and last names for their diplomas. A previous version of the story said the policy change only allowed students to indicate a chosen first name.