News & Politics

Penn State Faculty Move to Erase the Terms 'Junior' and 'Senior', Calling Them 'Male-Centric'

Penn State University photo, credit Penn State University shared on Flickr.

Last month, the faculty senate at Pennsylvania State University passed a resolution urging the school to erase certain words from its lexicon, due to the supposedly problematic legacy of the “typically male-centered world” out of which the terms grew. The resolution aims at gendered pronouns such as “he/him/his” and “she/her/hers,” but it also demonizes the four iconic terms for a person’s years in college (and, often, high school): “freshman,” “sophomore,” “junior,” and “senior.”

“The University, as with most all academic institutions world-wide, has grown out of a typically male-centered world. As such, many terms in our lexicon carry a strong, male-centric, binary character to them,” the faculty senate resolution begins. “Terms such as ‘freshmen’ are decidedly male-specific, while terms such as ‘upperclassmen’ can be interpreted as both sexist and classist.”

The resolution also faults “junior” and “senior” as subtly patriarchal. “Terms such as ‘junior’ and ‘senior’ are parallel to western male father-son naming conventions, and much of our written documentation uses he/she pronouns,” the resolution claims.

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Penn State has adopted AD84 — the Preferred Name and Gender Identity Policy — which provides students a process to specify a gender identity that may conflict with their biological sex or the sex on their legal documents. The professors cited this policy, urging the school to “close the loop and ensure that all people are not only able to choose their name & gender identity within our systems, but that these documents and systems are also structured to be inclusive from the start.”

The professors urged a comprehensive overhaul of “all written materials, including recruiting materials, admissions materials, scholarship information, housing materials, other outward-facing documents, internal documents, and websites.”

This Orwellian makeover would systematically erase “gendered pronouns” when the school refers to “students, faculty, staff, and guests.” The faculty senate urges the school to “[r]eplace he/him/his and she/her/hers with they/them/theirs or use non-gendered terms such as student, faculty member, staff member, etc.”

In other words, rather than using the proper singular pronouns that clarify a person’s meaning, the school would use vague plural pronouns to refer to one individual, increasing confusion and literally neutering the English language.

Yet, in 2021, this kind of attack on basic grammar seems rather passé. The attack on terms like “junior” and “senior” sets this particular resolution apart.

The faculty senate urges the school to “[m]ove away from the use of academic grouping titles that stem from a primarily male-centric academic history in course descriptions and degree program descriptions.”

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“Replace freshman/sophomore/junior/senior with first-year (1st-year), second-year (2nd-year), third-year (3rd-year), fourth-year (4th-year), and beyond,” the resolution urges. “Note: some programs include additional undergraduate years, or Integrated Undergraduate-Graduate programs (IUG), that run beyond the typical timeframe, resulting in the nickname ‘super-senior’. This would be replaced with fifth-year (5th-year), and beyond, as needed.”

Of course, even this “fifth-year” option may not be “inclusive” enough, however.

“Concerns have been raised that numbering years beyond the fourth (4th) would perhaps negatively reflect on students who, for various reasons, are taking longer to complete their (typically) four-year programs, and are also referred to as ‘super-seniors’.  In this case, the term does often carry a slightly negative connotation,” the professors argue. “Students in such situations beyond the fourth (4th) year could instead be referred to as ‘advanced-standing’ students.”

The professors may twist themselves in knots all they like, but they cannot erase the stigma that attaches to students who take more than the traditional four years to graduate. No matter how much faculty walk on eggshells to avoid offending super-seniors or “fifth-years” or “advanced-standing students,” no mandated term will erase the “slightly negative connotation.” In fact, in attempting to erase the stigma, the professors arguably only underscore it.

Finally, the professors urge the university to “[r]eplace ‘underclassmen’ and ‘upperclassmen’ with ‘lower division’ and ‘upper division’.”

This recommendation seems more bizarre than the others. If the terms “upperclassmen” and “lowerclassmen” actually offend anyone, that offense likely has more to do with the “upper” and “lower” prefixes, rather than the “classmen” suffix. The professors’ preferred lexicon still puts some people on a hierarchy over other people — and isn’t that the kind of thinking the faculty wish to avoid?

The faculty may wish to neuter the English language, introduce more confusion, and muddy the waters when it comes to biological sex, but this Orwellian effort to erase the biological binary of male and female from the grammatical lexicon will not succeed in changing the fact that most Penn State students and faculty are male or female. (Those who suffer from disorders of sex development, known as “intersex,” do not truly represent a third sex but rather a tragic aberration from the binary that is necessary for reproduction.)

Even if the university forbids students from attempting to figure out if their classmates and professors are male or female, students will still attempt to categorize their fellows in terms of biological sex — our brains are hardwired to do so.

The faculty senate approved this resolution in a marathon meeting on April 27 in which it also approved resolutions aimed at improving the experiences of black faculty members and expressing solidarity with them, Penn State News reported.

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“This is a symbolic action, but it is important to take a stand against racism and stand with our fellow faculty, and then take steps in order to fight against racism and any act of white supremacy,” Senator Julio Palma said at the meeting.

PJ Media reached out to Penn State’s administration, asking whether or not the university itself would follow the faculty senate’s lead. Penn State did not respond to PJ Media’s request by press time.

Prospective students, their parents, and all alumni of Penn State should take note of just how “woke” the school’s faculty has become.