Gallaudet: protesters won, now what?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Nov 8 14:06:25 UTC 2006
>>From the issue dated November 10, 2006

A Protest Topples a President
At Gallaudet U., students and alumni who ousted their appointed leader
must now confront new challenges



The protesters were ready to lock down the campus again. On October 29,
even after three weeks of demonstrations that included arrests, hunger
strikes, and two takeovers of campus buildings at Gallaudet University,
dozens of students were prepared to continue their rebellion if the
university's Board of Trustees decided to stand firm in their appointment
of Jane K. Fernandes as president-designate of the university. But the
standoff ended at 5:34 that evening when the trustees sent an e-mail
message saying that they had decided to "terminate" Ms. Fernandes, the
same woman whom, just two weeks earlier, they had described as the most
qualified candidate to lead the nation's only liberal-arts university for
the deaf. "Although undoubtedly there will be some members of the
community who have differing views on the meaning of this decision," the
statement said, "we believe it is a necessity at this point. ... The hope
of the Board of Trustees is for our beloved community to come together to
work for a stronger and better Gallaudet."

Gallaudet's leaders made their decision behind closed and heavily guarded
doors at a Hyatt hotel in Dulles, Va., about 30 miles from the
university's campus. In a hallway there, Bobbie Beth Scoggins, president
of the National Association of the Deaf, read the news on her BlackBerry,
then jumped up and down as she sprinted out of the lobby. "I have to get
to Gallaudet now!" she signed excitedly. Almost everyone who cared about
Gallaudet rushed to the campus that night, for there was much to discuss.
Although the announcement gave critics of Ms. Fernandes the victory they
sought, it did not resolve the underlying causes of their dissatisfaction
with her appointment. During their sustained and passionate protest, the
demands had been simple and specific: Ms. Fernandes must step down and the
university must not punish students for their civil disobedience, which
included blockading campus gates. After ousting the would-be president
last week, however, they turned to broader, more complicated goals.

Students, alumni, and faculty members all say they want a deaf leader who
will seek to build consensus among the university's various constituents.
They also think their future president should speak out against audism the
assumption that hearing is superior to deafness and racism, improve the
university's academic standards, and represent both Gallaudet and the deaf
community with charm and affability. That's quite a large order to fill,
especially at a time when people at Gallaudet disagree over the best way
make the campus inclusive of all deaf people while preserving the
university's unique identity a debate that predates the controversy over
Ms. Fernandes. "The problems we face are systemic, and they're not going
to go away easily," says one of Gallaudet's trustees, who did not want to
be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. "We're going to
have to tackle them, and it's going to be a struggle for us all."

A Unifying Cause

The intensity of the conflict surprised some observers in academe, where
protests now tend to involve only a handful of students and fizzle out
after a few hours or days. "I can't recall another time since Vietnam that
protests led to the closing of a campus," said Jonathan Knight, director
of the program on academic freedom and tenure at the American Association
of University Professors. "What was unusual here is not only how deeply
the students became involved in protesting the selection of a new
president, but also the steps they took to support their cause." A strong
dislike of Ms. Fernandes's personality and management style motivated some
protesters. When the university announced last April that she was one of
the final three candidates for president, students were quick to post
messages on blogs and e-mail lists recounting their interactions with Ms.
Fernandes during her six years as Gallaudet's provost.

Some described her as having dismissed their concerns in private meetings,
and said it was not uncommon for her to interrupt them in midsentence.
After Ms. Fernandes outlined her vision for the university during a public
presentation in the spring, students described her as "stiff" and
"humorless," and complained that she had dodged their questions. Many of
those questions, however, have no easy answers. How can a university
become more inclusive to the widening spectrum of deaf students, some of
whom now have partial hearing because of technological advancements, like
cochlear implants and digital hearing aids? What, exactly, could Ms.
Fernandes do to combat audism on campus and in society at large? And what
are the best ways to improve race relations at the university? On most
college campuses, students are content to leave debates over the future
direction of a university and its academic philosophy to faculty members
and administrators. At Gallaudet, however, many students are deeply
invested in their university's identity because they believe it reflects
their own.

The shared experience of being deaf unified Gallaudet students despite
their diverse backgrounds and interests. That bond also helped the
students garner tremendous support from alumni and national deaf-advocacy
groups. Throughout the protest, adults the kind that wear suits and ties
every day commingled with the students who had set up tents on Gallaudet's
campus. Many of them had flown in from other cities to stand in solidarity
with the students. Some had been Gallaudet students in 1988, when an
earlier generation of student protesters started the "Deaf President Now"
movement on the campus, which caused another president designate,
Elisabeth A. Zinser, to step down. In her place, Gallaudet's trustees
appointed I. King Jordan, the first deaf president, to lead the
university. This fall alumni and deaf leaders passed on tactical advice to
protesters.  Brian Riley, who earned his master's degree in linguistics at
Gallaudet in 1987, was one of a handful of alumni who volunteered to
publicize the protest. Between May and October, Mr. Riley often devoted 14
hours a day to the cause. Once he called local television news crews at
3:30 in the morning to tell them the students had taken over a university

That considerable support network also gave the protesters thousands of
dollars, as well as supplies. Their huge white tents were wellstocked with
snacks, hot drinks, and meals throughout the three-week ordeal. And
students who camped out each night received plenty of blankets. "What
helped us go on through the protest, even when we were so exhausted, was
the support we received from all over the world, and the hope we had,"
says Leah Katz-Hernandez, a sophomore and one of the protest's student
leaders. "Alumni were great in donating their time and efforts. ... There
were people who always tried to make sure everybody was comfortable and

Picture of a Provost

In recent weeks, protesters called Ms. Fernandes many names. They even
likened her to an evil queen. Yet they said little about the job she had
done during her six years as Gallaudet's provost, or about her plans for
the university's future. Gallaudet's trustees, however, had picked Ms.
Fernandes because of her experience at the university and the detailed and
articulate plan she had outlined for its future. As provost, Ms. Fernandes
helped build Gallaudet's deaf-studies program, which had been created in
1994 under the leadership of Mr. Jordan. She successfully recruited many
new faculty members to the department. In the spring Ms. Fernandes
introduced a plan to make Gallaudet a "visual-centric university," with an
emphasis on visual learning. She said she would urge professors to boycott
textbook companies that did not provide captions in their supplemental
materials. And she promised that under her leadership, all written content
on Gallaudet's Web site would be accompanied by videos with translations
in American Sign Language.

"She was the only one of the candidates who had a clear vision for the
institution," says one trustee. "Part of her vision included opening the
community to all forms of deafness, and she consistently raised academic
standards for both faculty and students." Yet Ms. Fernandes also offended
some students and faculty members, who often felt she acted without
considering their ideas and concerns. And some detractors claimed she was
out of touch with deaf culture because she had grown up in an oral
environment and had not learned to sign until she was 23. Some faculty
members who opposed Ms. Fernandes say her greatest sins were those of
omission. In 2003, for instance, the student government drafted a series
of proposed changes in campus policies in an effort to improve the
learning environment. The student leaders proposed a requirement that all
staff and faculty members must continually improve their proficiency in
American Sign Language, and that even hearing members of the faculty and
staff must always use sign language on the campus, even when speaking to
other hearing members in casual conversation.

Though Ms. Fernandes did establish a committee of students, faculty
members, and administrators to review the proposals and explore ways the
university could enact them, many members complained that because she
failed to take further action, the committee rarely met and no real
changes came about. Ms. Fernandes, who did not respond to The Chronicle's
repeated requests for comment, has said previously that many Gallaudet
students and alumni were hostile to her because they thought she was not
"deaf enough." Following her appointment last May, some faculty members
were dismayed that the trustees had picked someone who was widely
unpopular. In a meeting on October 16, 138 of 168 faculty members who
attended gave Ms.  Fernandes a vote of no confidence. At least some of
that opposition was sewn into the past. When Ms.  Fernandes became
Gallaudet's provost six years ago, the faculty gave her a vote of no
confidence. Their objection was that Mr. Jordan, the president, had
appointed her without consulting them, though he had sought their advice
about previous appointments. So began the perception that Ms.  Fernandes
was too chummy with Mr. Jordan.

Since then, Mr. Jordan has publicly said he erred in making the unilateral
appointment. "I think that marked the downward spiral of relations between
the faculty and the trustees," says Mark S. Weinberg, chairman of
Gallaudet's faculty senate. "We were incensed that the board showed no
concerns for the violation of due process and that they were highly
deferential to Dr.  Jordan and his decisions."

The 'Idol' in the Room

Although faculty members had their differences with Mr. Jordan, he has
long been admired by students, alumni, and deaf leaders. That changed
after Ms. Fernandes's appointment this spring. Those frustrations were
evident in the tense hours leading up to the trustees' decision last week,
when the lobby at the Hyatt had the feel of a hospital waiting room. Andy
Lange, president of Gallaudet's alumni association, and Ms. Scoggins, of
the National Association of the Deaf, huddled on a sofa. At one point, Ms.
Scoggins looked up from her BlackBerry and began thinking out loud. "How
the heck did we get to this point?" she asked, then answered her own
question. "In many ways, it's all of our faults because we put I. King
Jordan up as an idol. When you look at someone [like] that, you allow many
things to happen that shouldn't. We will never do that again." Some
faculty members blame the board for giving Mr. Jordan what they describe
as too much power, but many students and alumni agree with Ms.
Scoggins's assessment. Some of the former students and deaf leaders who
helped Mr. Jordan gain his position say they should have scrutinized him

During his 18 years at Gallaudet, Mr. Jordan has raised the endowment from
under $10-million to $170-million, bringing in more than $100-million in
federal money. He led the transition of Gallaudet from a college to a
university. Yet the university's graduation rates have long hovered around
40 percent, a problem some protesters say the president should have done
more to fix. On October 16, the faculty also voted no confidence in Mr.
Jordan, who did not respond to The Chronicle's request for an interview.
Since announcing their decision last week, the trustees have said little
about plans for their renewed presidential search, though they expect to
appoint an interim president after Mr. Jordan's scheduled departure, in

Last week protesters took down their tents and stepped back into their
lives as full-time students. Many were confident about Gallaudet's future.
"The level of scrutiny with the next president will be amazing, and it
should be that way," says Ms. Katz-Hernandez, one of the student protest
leaders. "Essential issues like audism and racism will undoubtedly come to
the surface, and it's going to be challenging. But we will remain vigilant
and make sure the search is fair." Students here have learned how to
topple a president. Their next lesson:  the difficulty of finding a new
Section: Students
Volume 53, Issue 12, Page A39


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