Diplomas to display gender-neutral language this year

Graphic by Casey Linenberg '19 

Graphic by Casey Linenberg '19 


2017 marks the first year that a Mount Holyoke graduating class will receive diplomas inscribed with gender-neutral language.

As announced at Senate on March 7, the Mount Holyoke Office of the Registrar has made the decision to change a Latin word on the diploma from a feminine noun to a genderless adjective.

“It was raised as a concern directly to us from students,” said Mount Holyoke registrar Elizabeth Pyle. “We got a couple of calls asking, ‘is there gendered language in the diploma?’”

Rumors that the certificates featured gendered pronouns began to spread across campus following a senior meeting in 2016, and prompted several students to post on social media and to write op/eds in the Mount Holyoke News expressing frustration at the idea of a gendered diploma.

“Not only is this an act of violence, but it is basically a voiding of an expensive degree for anyone that doesn’t use ‘she’ pronouns,” wrote Caedyn Busche ’17 in an op/ed to the Mount Holyoke News in September.

“I think the assumption was that somewhere in there was a ‘her’ kind of reference,” Pyle explained. The registrar’s office did not believe the diploma contained any mention of gender, so they decided to investigate.

The office enlisted the help of professors from the Mount Holyoke classics department, including professors Geoff Sumi and Bruce Arnold, to help translate the Latin and determine if the phrasing on the diploma implied the gender of the degree-holder.

They found that it did not.

“It never was saying anything about the person who held the degree,” Pyle said. “Latin is a very gendered language. Every adjective relates to its noun in a gendered kind of way. So of course there’s gendered language in [the diploma], but there is no gender designation of the person receiving the degree.”

The language did, however, refer in a generalized way to a group of graduated (feminine) people who held the degree.

The Latin phrase in question on the diploma was: “[The student] ad gradum Baccalaureae in Artibus.” Translated, this phrase means “[the student] is admitted to the rank of bachelor.” The word for ‘bachelor,’ a bachelor’s-degree holder, in this case was Baccalaaurae, a feminine noun.

Similar to the Latin word alumnae, the ae ending on the word indicates that it is feminine. So although this word doesn’t assign a gender to the degree holder, it does assign the gender of all the degree-holders who came before, according to Pyle.

The registrar’s office set about looking for a way to change the language. Pyle sent emails to registrars at other colleges and universities throughout the Northeast that use Latin diplomas, and collected samples of their Latin phrases to see if any of their examples might prove useful.

But it wasn’t until they saw the language on the diploma from Colby College that inspiration struck. Following Colby’s example, the registrar decided to change the noun Baccalaureae which is inherently gendered, to the adjective baccalaurealem  which is neutral.

Professor Bruce Arnold was part of the classics team that the registrar’s office asked to examine the original diploma. He explained the specifics of the grammatical change, and the effect it had on the translation.

“Let’s explain it this way. It’s like instead of saying ‘the book of my father,’ it now says ‘the paternal book.’” Arnold said. “Instead of saying you’ve been admitted to ‘the rank of a bachelor,’ the new one says ‘a bachelor’s rank.’ ”

Whereas bachelor had previously referred to a feminine degree-holder, now the degree is merely used to describe the type of rank it is, in a genderless way.

“‘Rank’ is gendered, but it says nothing about the gender of the one who holds that rank,” Arnold added. “That’s the beauty of the trick.”

The change is minute — all it took was a 5-letter change to switch the noun to an adjective.

“Now since its adjectival, it has no implication of gender,” said Pyle. “Which is great for us, not only for our trans students on campus, but also because we offer masters programs that are co-ed through PaGE. It feels much more comfortable to just not have anything that could be gendered.”

The process of changing the diplomas took place over the course of the 2016-2017 academic year.

“It took some patience and some time to figure out what we could do to gather enough information to see how other diplomas were constructed and written,” Pyle said. “We were appreciative that people gave us the time that we needed to figure it out.”