New Gallaudet President Met With Protest
Tuesday, May 2, 2006
Gallaudet University's provost, Jane K. Fernandes, was named its president yesterday, promoting her to head the school for the deaf and setting off an instant protest by hundreds of students who preferred other candidates.
The trustees picked Fernandes to replace I. King Jordan, who made history 18 years ago when protesting students demanded a deaf president for the school, which many consider the cultural center of the deaf community.
Within moments of the announcement, a mass of students had blocked the main gates of the campus in Northeast Washington. They shouted, climbed onto the stone fences and one another's shoulders to sign to the growing crowd, and scrawled angry words on bare stomachs in thick black paint.
Some complained that the board of trustees once again was ignoring the campus community; some decried the lack of racial diversity among the finalists. For Fernandes, who is white, the criticism often centered on personality; some said she was cold, aloof, condescending.
"She doesn't say 'hi,' " one student's poster read, along with a new rallying cry: "Better president now."
But Fernandes, who has been at Gallaudet for 11 years and provost since 2000, was the unanimous choice of the board. She had strong supporters, and even some of her critics said she had the strongest credentials of the three finalists.
"It's very emotional for everyone right now, but I think people will see that she can be a good leader for Gally," said Benjamin Lewis, a senior from San Francisco. "She sends the message that this will be an inclusive university."
Eighteen years after students marched to the White House and the Capitol demanding a "Deaf President Now" and launching a civil rights movement, this generation of students has new expectations and new demands.
This time, all the finalists were deaf, and many said that that in itself was cause for celebration.
"We made history once again," said interim board chairman Celia May Baldwin, "because for the first time we have had open discussions and even debates on campus" about which deaf person could best lead Gallaudet. Baldwin added that the board is thrilled to have someone of Fernandes's caliber taking the job.
But for others, the selection -- which was watched closely not only on campus but also across the country through videos of speeches in American Sign Language and on Web sites filled with emotional debate -- was still divisive.
Things have changed profoundly for deaf people in the generation that followed those who protested in 1988. When the board -- then made up mostly of hearing people -- reversed a decision and chose Jordan to lead the school, it became known as "the day the world heard Gallaudet."