Why can’t they get my name right?
Over the past 30+ years, I’ve seen more iterations of my name generated by my alma maters than I care to count. Miss Kathy Anne Johnson, Mrs Kathy Anne Johnson, Mrs Kathy Anne Johnson Bowles, Kathy Johnson-Bowles. I once received a special issue of a magazine on women leaders addressed to Mrs. Kathy Bowles, prompting a pointed letter to the magazine’s editor noting the irony. He admitted I was right and quickly said he had nothing to do with generating the shipping labels. I had to agree but asked him to pass on the comments.
Years ago, after being so annoyed that one of my alma maters wouldn’t use the requested name, I told my then-husband if someone called again to tell the caller that I was dead. And to my surprise, he did. Guess what happened? Shortly after the ruse, he received a letter asking if I had left a bequest to the university in my will. Ah yes, the institution went there. I am not joking.
Eventually the institution realized that I was still alive and started sending me mail again. They continued their stubbornly creative approach to greetings. When I divorced over 12 years ago, I asked them to make a change. They did it. Then, a decade later, they started their “Mr. and Mrs.” nonsense once again. I called and asked for a correction. We’ll see how long it takes until it’s changed to something else again.
After years of service in higher education advocacy and communications offices, I know I’m not the only one whose name is smeared. People often complain about it. Female donors and alumni also complain about having the primary relationship with the institution and receiving correspondence addressed to their male partner. And be listed as “Mrs. [husband’s name].” Everyone complains, why can’t the institutions name my name well?
Here are some possible reasons:
Official Student Records: After graduation, student information (excluding course, grade, health, and disciplinary information) is shared with the Advancement Office for alumni engagement, communication and the solicitation of gifts. If student records (greetings regarding gender and names) are incorrect, they will be wrong in the future.
Residence name: Some institutions are keen to ensure alumni names are listed as they are experienced by correcting salutations and names, while others require legal documents to change a name in the system. . The requirement to legally prove an inhabited name is somewhat misleading, as many institutions easily change women’s names when they marry, even without a request from the woman or without a legal document. Institutions need to find data management solutions for gender identity and inhabited names.
Archaic etiquette practices and implicit biases: The data entry process is cumbersome. Data stewards often adhere to outdated conventions and assumptions. This is particularly true for the entry of couples into the system. If the advancement office receives a check with the names of a man and a woman, the agreement of “Mr. and Mrs.” is followed. The name of the man is listed as the primary constituent (head of household) even though the woman may be the primary constituent (the alum or the person making the donation or the head of household). Subsequently, when thanking the donor or requesting another gift, the woman is left out and/or the greeting reads: “Mr. and Mrs. [man’s name].”
In other cases, the person entering the data may be deterred by trying to apply a heteronormative rule to the entry when registering same-sex couples. They may also have a bias against recognizing same-sex couples. Therefore, the couple’s records are not linked at all.
Institutions should stop using honorifics and salutations based on binary gender, marital status, and outdated notions of etiquette. Institutions should not blindly adhere to sexist or heteronormative conventions regarding which name comes first in a letter, envelope, list, or building. The primary settlor should be the person who has the direct relationship and/or made the contribution.
Other types of implicit bias: Many institutions may not train staff in a comprehensive approach to name registration. Therefore, names can be anglicized by omitting diacritics. The difference between Mich’ele and Michelle is a significant difference for an individual, as it denotes heritage and identity. Other examples include the order of a person’s name or the number of names included. In China, surnames come first and Brazilians use two or more surnames. This resource on Names Worldwide from the W3C Internationalization Working Group provides information on how various cultures approach names.
Ghost databases: Voter data is generally held and managed by the Office of Advancement Services. University departments sometimes ask the Office of Advancement Services (sometimes through the Office of Alumni Relations) to provide them with a mailing list. The purpose may be to send departmental newsletters or to request participation in mentorship and internship programs, career counselling, advisory boards and strategic planning processes. The problem with these databases held by departments is that they are autonomous. If the central database is updated, these shadow databases may not be, and vice versa.
If you ask the ministry to correct the information, it may not be corrected anywhere else. If you ask advancement to correct your name, it will still be wrong if the department does not receive an updated list. That’s why when you ask a region to update your name, they might get it wrong the next time you send. Even if you ask the Alumni Relations Office to correct the information, they are usually not the ones who change the system. Thus, the data may not be updated.
Improper execution of queries and incorrect mailings: Creating a mailing list requires the Data Manager to extract the correct information fields. Omitting certain fields may mean omitting inhabited nouns or omitting parts of a noun. For example, with my name, if Johnson Bowles is entered in a field as my (correct) last name, it would be addressed to Kathy Johnson Bowles (and listed alphabetically under J). But if Johnson is entered as the middle name and Bowles as the last name, there are two fields of information. So, if the request does not ask for the middle name and last name field but only the last name, the mailing will be addressed to Kathy Bowles (alphabetically under B).
There are many possibilities for mailings to go wrong. It gets more complicated when someone with little experience is working with the data. For example, if someone orders the fields incorrectly on a mass solicitation letter and a couple has different last names, their names could be confused. Stephen Long and Kathy Johnson Bowles could become Stephen Johnson and Kathy Johnson Long.
Exploitation of data and search for old “lost”: When institutions do not have current alumni information or addresses, they often hire companies to find them. This information may or may not be correct or only partially correct. This is another way to change information or restore old or incorrect information.