BISMARCK, N.D. — The president of the University of North Dakota on Friday defended a proposal that would allow students to use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity, saying the intent is to align the Grand Forks-based school with existing laws and to better protect LGBTQ students from harassment and discrimination.
University President Andrew Armacost's livestreamed presentation came after widespread criticism from state lawmakers, North Dakota's two Roman Catholic bishops and Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski, who said in a Facebook post that the gender inclusion policy proposal "spits in the face of everything we believe in" and called it a "sad day for my alma mater." The proposal would require, among other things, the use of a transgender person's preferred pronouns and allow people to use facilities that align with their gender identity.
"The draft policy is intended to state our support to our LGBTQ members and, in particular, to our transgender and nonbinary members, with that same guarantee of access to education and fair employment without fear of discrimination or harassment," Armacost said.
The policy also says the university expects to use gender-inclusive imagery and language in signage, publications and marketing material.
Armacost, a former brigadier general and retired dean at the Air Force Academy, was named president of the university in late 2019. The school has an enrollment of about 13,780 students and is the first of North Dakota's 11 public colleges and universities to craft such a wide-ranging gender inclusion policy.
Donna Smith, the school's vice president of equal opportunity, and Armacost said LGBTQ students have reported harassment and discrimination, though no formal complaints have ever been filed.
Armacost said he personally received a complaint Thursday. Smith said she believed many concerns go unreported.
Critics of the proposed policy have expressed particular concern about student housing. Armacost emphasized that it is not true that someone would be assigned housing according to their "expressed gender rather than their biological sex."
"The draft policy doesn't discuss the specifics of the housing assignment process," Armacost said. "The language in the draft policy is intended to offer assurance that trans and gender nonconforming students will be provided access to housing consistent with their gender identity."
The proposal gives exemptions for fraternities and sororities, which are permitted to "set their own policies regarding the sex, including gender identity, of their members," as allowed under Title IX, the 1972 federal law that protects against sex discrimination in education.
The issue of discrimination based on sexual orientation has come up frequently in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Attempts to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, government, public services and the workplace has been defeated several times. Republican former Gov. Jack Dalrymple chided lawmakers when they killed legislation in 2015, telling them that they had missed an opportunity to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination. Current GOP Gov. Doug Burgum also has been outspoken on the Legislature's failure to pass an anti-discrimination bill.
Some lawmakers have told The Associated Press it's likely legislation would come to reverse the school's policy if it is adopted in its draft form.
Armacost said he would work with concerned lawmakers to "work out sensible policies that won't trigger reaction."
Armacost said he does not have a timeline for his final approval.