By Gordon Deegan
The move by Trinity College Dublin (TCD) to axe the title ‘freshman’ has been described by students as ‘absolutely ridiculous’, ‘an April Fool’s joke’, ‘an absolute embarrassment’, ‘complete nonsense’ and a ‘slap in the face for feminism’.
Documents released in response to a Freedom of Information request show that the move sparked an angry backlash from TCD students and how the college botched the initial announcement.
On November 28 last, in a joint letter, TCD Vice Provost, Prof Chris Morash and President of the TCD Students' Union, Kevin Keane sent out an email to the college population confirming that the title for first and second year students is to be changed from ‘Freshman’ to the gender neutral term, ‘Fresh’.
However, the move to phase out the ‘freshman’ title brought an angry response, with some students - and academics - focusing on the college replacing the noun ‘Freshman’ with the adjective ‘fresh’.
In an email, Associate Professor in Physiology, Dr Áine Kelly wrote within hours of the announcement being circulated: “I fear that this may make the College look ridiculous. Are we to have a ‘Fresh Week' in 2018/19?”
In another email, Fellow Emeritus of History, Prof David Fitzpatrick wrote: “What a shame that the Equality Committee chose an adjective rather than a noun, thus embarrassing first and second year students of all genders.”
The morning after the announcement, an internal email referred to RTE’s Ryan Tubridy show “was making merry at our expense” while another referred to “some unflattering coverage” about the announcement on the show’s November 29 broadcast.
The error left the college scrambling and a clarification email was sent out at 5pm on November 29 from Prof Morash and Kevin Keane that ‘fresh’ is intended to be used as an adjective in context e.g. Junior Fresh Student and that the noun ‘fresher’ can also be used to ensure grammatical accuracy.
The email said that the use of 'fresher' and 'fresh' was approved by the Equality Committee on December 5, 2016.
In response to the clarification, well known TCD academic, Prof Brian Lucey emailed in response ‘When you’re explaining….’.
The initial announcement confirming the change stated that “this small but important change will ensure that all Trinity students are equally included by the language used to describe them - be they male, female or of another gender identity”.
However one student emailed back to state “surely this is a premature April Fools?”. The student wrote: “I am all for equality in every single aspect of life. But surely, this is a step too far - the ‘man’ in freshman stands for human, every one of us is included.”
Another student signing off as a 'Senior Freshman Science' also hit out at the decision to phase out ‘freshman’ writing ‘this feels like an ill-thought out attempt at pandering to a small, albeit very vocal minority of students who may find this term ‘problematic’.
Another student wrote “as a woman, I can tell you that I, and I’m sure most others, did not have any issue with this until one was created”.
Other emails from students variously described the change as ‘absolutely ridiculous’, ‘complete nonsense’, ‘very silly’, ‘shocking’ , ‘absurd’ and ‘pathetic’.
Another caustically commented ‘Thanks for the update. I’m really looking forward to the SU Equality Committee’s screening of Bat v Super’.
Another female signing herself off as a Senior Freshman said that the term Freshman used in the TCD context “is already gender neutral”. She said: “If it was ever offensive, it ceased to be years ago. As a female student, I don’t feel excluded from this at all.”
One other student wrote: “Absolute embarrassment. Tackle real gender inequality issues you snowflakes,” while another ‘Senior Freshman science student’ wrote “this is a waste of everyone’s time and will not achieve anything other than a loss of respect and worth for this well-established educational institution”.
One TCD history and political science student who describes herself as a feminist also hit out at the move describing the change as “a slap in the face for feminism”.
She wrote: “It is hard to express how frustrating it is to be a feminist and to have this kind of thing happen. This is petty and certainly not how I see the gender reaching equality.”
The student stated that from speaking to her peers “this initiative is hugely misled”. She wrote: “As a woman, it is blatantly obvious that we are not equally included in TCD. It can be seen simply by looking at the faculty members.”
She went on to state: “The term ‘freshman’ has never been a worry of mine or any of my peers. It has never been an issue. However the prevalent issue of female exclusion is.”
In an email, Fionán Tierney wrote: “I believe that this is a needless change which does nothing for improving how students see themselves. It is conforming to the growing idea of a PC culture in which no one can bear the thought of being offended in any way, shape or form about who they are."
Mr Tierney said: “This change is a step too far to pander to the easily offended.”
One student did state ‘great move, thanks’ in response to the change while another stated "I would like to applaud you on trying to make the word 'Freshman' more gender neutral and it is greatly appreciated".
In response to TCD issuing the second email containing the clarification, TCD academic, Dr Sarah Alyn Stacey wrote: “It is regrettable that such confusion has arisen where there are important gender issues to be addressed in college - promotion of women, representation of women on College committees, sexual harassment to name but three.”
Dr Stacey added: “The public might well be more concerned with how we address these issues than with our - in my opinion - unfortunate jettisoning of our historic title of Freshman.”
In an emailed response to those who complained, TCD Equality Officer, Aoife Crawford wrote on November 30 “freshman’ did offend and/or exclude some - but of course not all - students and staff”.
Ms Crawford wrote: “The change is in keeping with a general increase in the non-gendered use of language in the university e.g. chair instead of ‘chairman’ for heads of committees, recognising the fact that these are not necessarily men."
Ms Crawford said that the Students’ Union is very supportive of the move stating “this change to a gender neutral term is indeed just a small step towards gender equality and it requires little resources.
She added: “You are right that other actions will have greater impact on gender equality and please be assured that those are what the college spends much more time and effort on.”