By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
Deaf people talk about pre- and post-DPN (the Deaf President Now movement) and compare Jordan to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. So since Jordan announced that he would be stepping down at the end of the calendar year, the deaf community has anticipated his successor with intense interest.
Faculty members passed resolutions and signed petitions, alumni sent e-mails and hundreds of students rallied last month. There were so many hits on a Web site on the topic that it froze after the announcement yesterday afternoon.
Students said the vast majority of them did not want Fernandes to be president; they preferred Ronald J. Stern, superintendent and chief executive of the New Mexico School for the Deaf, or Stephen F. Weiner, an associate professor and former dean at Gallaudet.
Although some said the board had made a great effort to get outside opinions, others disagreed.
Some were angry that all of the finalists were white. Some wanted a candidate who would promote "cultural deafness," preferring those who grew up deaf and relied on American Sign Language. Fernandes learned to sign when she was a young woman and can communicate well by speaking or by signing.
Some said they didn't like Fernandes because they thought she was too strict.
And some questioned whether she could be a strong advocate and shine in a role that is so public. "Can she lead a university that represents deaf people to the world?" said Jesse Thomas, a junior from Philadelphia. "I don't think so."
When Fernandes's name was announced at a campus conference center, some students cheered and waggled their fingers in the air to applaud, but a few booed, and a steady stream left as she spoke.
She continued on, emphasizing that she would work to improve relations with students over the next eight months -- the period before Jordan steps down -- and that they would get to know a new Jane Fernandes. The role of provost is very different from the role of president, she said afterward.
She said it will be hard to follow Jordan. "I'm more of a quiet leader," she said. "Quiet but effective -- I have a different style."
She said a priority will be forging unity. "Because we have so many different aspects of the deaf community," different ways of communicating, different backgrounds and different priorities, "we need Gallaudet to pull all of these together. I think I can help to do that."
And, she added, "it's important for me to clearly say that I see ASL as the fabric that holds together Gallaudet's diverse community. So Gallaudet will always be a signing university. We will always use visual communication. We will always use that."
Jordan wrote in an e-mail after the announcement that the board had considered a tremendous amount of feedback and would not revisit the decision. He added his own strong endorsement of Fernandes, praising her experience as an administrator and scholar.
At the campus's front gate, students chanted with their hands and banged on drums. Some held banners that said, "Know Thy Enemy," a slogan that for weeks has been on T-shirts with a picture of Fernandes. A student leader stood high above the crowd, asking those assembled what they wanted to tell the board.
"We want to be heard," he signed, and they yelled as he signed again, forcefully, "We want to be heard!"
Early today, more than 200 students were still near the front gate. Some vowed to stay the night and urged others to return this morning to block the gate when the university reopens.