Nothing wrong with ‘freshmen’

By Editorial Board

The University of North Carolina decided in 2009 to stop using the word “freshmen” when referring to its incoming students because of the word’s perceived gender bias and replaced it with  “first-year students.”

The policy gained attention this October after broadcast journalist John Stossel learned of it while taping a segment for his show on Fox Business Network. He wrote an opinion piece for media website, calling the university’s shift in vocabulary an assault on free speech. Education bloggers soon jumped on the story, some in favor of the policy and others opposed to it.

Such a small change shouldn’t generate this much fuss from either side.  There’s little reason to be offended by the university’s decision. There are other colleges that use the term “first-year” rather than “freshman.” Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and Williams College in Massachusetts don’t use the word “freshmen” in any of their official materials.

That said, this change in policy isn’t anything to praise. The word “freshmen” may be a bit gender-biased, but unfortunately, so is much of the English language, including the word “human.”

As noble as the policy sounds, dropping the word “freshmen” is inconsequential to women’s place in higher education.

The problems women face on campuses have little to do with the exclusivity of the term. Women attend college at a rate 25 percent higher than men, according to the 2010 U.S. census. It seems the word isn’t keeping women from pursuing a higher education.

College campuses can be an unwelcoming environment for women in other ways. For example, The Amherst Student, the student newspaper at Amherst College in Massachusetts, published an Oct. 17 article written by Angie Epifano, a former student who was raped on campus. Epifano’s emotional firsthand account alleges that the college did almost nothing to help her. She says she was told she could not move out of the dorm building where her alleged attacker also lived, and the college wouldn’t take action against him because he was about to graduate.

According to a 2009 study conducted by the National Institute of Justice, the last year comprehensive data was available, 35 of every 1,000 women attending college are raped each year. Colleges should be concerned with the bigger issues women face on campuses, instead of inventing problems for the sake of appearing progressive.

The problems women experience in college can’t be tackled by changing the semantics of a student handbook. There’s nothing wrong with trying to use more gender-inclusive language, but it doesn’t solve anything substantial. UNC’s decision isn’t an assault on freedom of speech, but it’s also not a significant victory for women’s rights. Moving past the word “freshmen” may be a way to gain some credibility in certain circles, but actions speak louder than words.