Gallaudet U. reopens; police arrest protesters

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Oct 16 15:55:32 UTC 2006

Monday, October 16, 2006

Police Arrest Protesters and Reopen Gallaudet U.

City police officers arrested 133 protesters blocking the main entrance to
Gallaudet University, in Washington, on Friday evening, ending a three-day
blockade by students opposed to the choice of the next president for the
nation's only university for the deaf. University administrators said
classes would resume today, but protest leaders have called on students to
boycott their classes. The protesters say Jane K. Fernandes, who is set to
become the institution's president in January, is not a strong enough
advocate for deaf people and makes decisions without adequately consulting
others. They are demanding that the search for a new president be

Student protesters had been occupying the main classroom building since
October 5, but the situation escalated drastically on Wednesday when
students, led by the football team, sealed off all of the university's
entrances in the hours before dawn (The Chronicle, October 12). On Sunday
afternoon, protesters continued to block the main gate, but a gate on the
northeastern side of the campus was open, and the administration said it
would serve as the main entrance today. The arrests started shortly after
9 p.m. Friday evening under the glare of police floodlights. Sign-language
interpreters provided by the university were there to facilitate
communication, and protesters went limp when informed they were under
arrest. They were carried into police vans, often as other protesters took
their place in the line of people blocking the entrance road.

Those arrested were taken to a police facility and given the choice of
paying a $50 fine or receiving a citation, which requires a court
appearance. No arrest-related injuries were reported. I. King Jordan, who
will finish 18 years as the institution's president at the end of the
year, had requested police intervention to reopen the campus after failing
to persuade students to end their blockade. "Last night was one of the
saddest of my life," he said in a written statement on Saturday. "I want
to be clear that we did not choose to arrest the students," he wrote.
"They chose to be arrested. But the result was the same."

He indicated the institution would stick with the choice of Ms. Fernandes
as its next president. "We need to work together to heal the rift that
separates us," he added. Mr. Jordan, who was swept into office by the Deaf
President Now movement in 1988, has been a very popular leader of the deaf
community. But his popularity appears to be falling victim to the current
crisis. Many alumni and faculty members who had spent time with the
protesting students were upset by Mr. Jordan's decision to call in the
police to a place that has become in many ways the center of deaf culture
in America.  Faculty members were "horrified and profoundly sad," said
Carol J. Erting, chair of Gallaudet's education department.

"I don't think I can describe how profoundly upsetting it was to everyone
I've talked to," she added. Bobbie Beth Scoggins, president of the
National Association of the Deaf, said in a written statement on Sunday
that "less drastic options" should have been explored first. "These
arrests should never have happened." In a statement last Wednesday,
shortly after the campus takeover, Mr.  Jordan had mentioned a hesitation
to call in the police. "I have been asked why I haven't used police to end
the standoff," he said. "It is because I care about the safety of all of
our students more than the protesters care about anything but getting
their way."

Protests against the choice of Ms. Fernandes, who was then provost, began
almost immediately after the Board of Trustees chose her last May.
Students demonstrated and the faculty passed a vote of no confidence in
her. Ms. Fernandes is deaf but was raised in an "oral" environment,
learning sign language only at the age of 23 (The Chronicle, May 19).
Opponents also say that the search process for a new president was flawed,
and that faculty and student views were not adequately taken into account.
Among other things, opponents question why, despite the increasingly
multiracial nature of the campus, all three finalists were white.

In a commentary published on Saturday in The Washington Post, Ms.
Fernandes said she saw the opposition to her mainly as a sign of turmoil
among deaf people over how to deal with challenges to their traditions and
culture. Medical advances, like cochlear implants, are restoring a degree
of hearing undreamed of a decade or two ago, raising doubts about the
future of American Sign Language. In addition, she wrote, the presidential
search brought to the fore issues of racism, and of discrimination by
hearing people, known as "audism." Those issues, she wrote, have been long
rumbling under the surface. When it came time to choose a new president
for Gallaudet, "they erupted like a volcano. I happened to be the person
standing next to that volcano."

On Friday, Gallaudet's administration announced that it had retained Eric
H. Holder Jr., a former U.S. deputy attorney general who is now a lawyer
in a private practice, to lead an investigation into allegations that
campus security guards had used excessive force during a student
occupation of the main classroom building several days before the start of
the campus takeover. Meanwhile, faculty members who met on the campus over
the weekend issued a plea for the Board of Trustees to come to the campus
without delay to try to resolve the crisis. In her statement on Sunday,
Ms. Scoggins, the president of the National Association for the Deaf,
echoed that plea by calling on the board to immediately become more
involved in the situation. "Trust and leadership," she wrote, "are
tragically absent." The full faculty is scheduled to meet today to discuss
the crisis.


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