Placed on Probation by Its Accreditor, Gallaudet Vows Reform

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Jul 13 12:59:51 UTC 2007
>>From the issue dated July 13, 2007

Placed on Probation by Its Accreditor, Gallaudet Vows Reform

Gallaudet University has been placed on probation by its accreditor,
an indication that serious problems persist at the nation's only
liberal-arts university for the deaf. Still, months after protests
roiled the university's campus here, some Gallaudet students and
alumni say the sanctions, announced last month, may be a blessing in
disguise, as the university moves to rethink its mission. "I was, in
truth, glad of it, because Gallaudet is long overdue in moving in the
right direction," said Ryan K. Commerson, a master's-degree student in
cultural studies and one of the leaders of last year's demonstrations
against the appointment of Jane K. Fernandes as president, a move that
Gallaudet's Board of Trustees subsequently reversed.

"The action," Mr. Commerson said in an interview, "is helping us
refocus our priorities."
The decision by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education is,
nonetheless, a blow to Gallaudet, which will have until November 2008
to prove it is in compliance with the accrediting organization's
standards for leadership, integrity, and student retention, among
other factors. The accrediting group found Gallaudet had problems with
eight of its standards.

In the interim, the university will retain accreditation. Losing
accreditation would be a serious problem for Gallaudet, which, like
other American colleges, must be approved by a recognized accreditor
for its students to participate in federal student-aid programs.
In an open letter posted on the university's Web site, Robert R.
Davila, the university's president, and Stephen F. Weiner, its new
provost, said the decision was "not unanticipated, and in many ways we
have been operating [under] a self-imposed probation."

Indeed, Gallaudet's accreditation had been delayed for months,
following demonstrations last year that shut down the campus for days.
The protests were sparked by the appointment of Ms. Fernandes, who
opponents said was not a strong enough advocate for deaf people and
made decisions without adequately consulting others. She was named
after I. King Jordan, the university's longtime president, announced
he was stepping down. Officials with the accrediting group declined to
discuss the Gallaudet decision, but, in a previous letter to the
university, disclosed earlier this year, they said the 2006 protests
raised questions about the university's governance and whether its
governing board is out of touch.

The letter, from Linda A. Suskie, a vice president at the commission,
called Gallaudet's accreditation "fragile" and expressed concern about
weak academic standards, an unfocused mission, and a lack of tolerance
for diverse views at the university. Gallaudet's graduation rates have
long hovered around 40 percent, and its most-recent six-year
graduation rate was just 28 percent, according to the U.S. Department
of Education, as opposed to the national rate for four-year
institutions of 55.9 percent.

A report by the White House's Office of Management and Budget also
found that Gallaudet had problems keeping and graduating students.
(More than two-thirds of the university's $150-million budget comes as
a direct appropriation from Congress.)

Re-examining Its Mission

Mr. Davila, who was named to the post in December, and Mr. Weiner, who
took office last week, note that the university has already assembled
groups of faculty and staff members and students, about 150 in total,
to develop plans to improve university governance, raise admissions
standards, and prepare students for postgraduate life.

The Faculty Senate recently approved a new core curriculum, to take
effect this fall, that reduces the number of general-studies
requirements and includes more-specific learning outcomes.

Even without the action by accreditors, many students and officials on
the campus said it was necessary for Gallaudet to re-examine its

"It is important to note that despite the issues MSCHE raised,
Gallaudet needed to change," said Erin Casler, a spokeswoman for the
university, referring to the accrediting group.

The university, long a center of deaf culture, has struggled to
attract and keep students as more deaf children choose mainstream
colleges or get implants that allow them to hear. Gallaudet's
enrollment dropped during the protests, from 1,206 undergraduates in
the fall of 2006 to 1,103 this spring, according to the university.

At a news conference to announce the probation, Mr. Davila said he
hoped the accreditation news would not further affect enrollment.

Leah Katz-Hernandez, a junior and a student leader during the
protests, is serving on one of the working groups, on governance

She said there is more open debate, and, despite the news, a "real
sense of optimism" pervades the campus.

The announcement has lit up the blogosphere, where some writers said
they hoped it augured change. Others expressed frustration about the
long-term direction of the university, and still others said they were
fearful about Gallaudet's future.

One blogger, Elizabeth Gillespie, a former Gallaudet professor who
writes using the pseudonym Mishka Zena wrote, "This doesn't look good.
I knew Gallaudet was in a bad shape, but not the extent."

But another, Ricky D. Taylor, a Gallaudet alumnus who blogs under the
name Ridor, titled his entry "Gallaudet Shall Prosper."

"This is not a bad sign, actually," he wrote. "It is time for a change." Section: Money & Management Volume 53, Issue 45, Page A23

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