Ideas Exchanged as Protest Continues at Gallaudet

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 3, 2006

For a second straight day, students at Gallaudet University protested the appointment of a new president, with at times hundreds rallying at the front gate of the campus yesterday and demanding that the choice be reconsidered.

Jane K. Fernandes, the university provost who was named Monday to succeed the popular I. King Jordan, spent part of the afternoon facing angry students and promising to open a dialogue.

Jordan, who made history 18 years ago as Gallaudet's first deaf president, said the board of trustees' decision was final and the right choice.

Since the selection of Fernandes, who is also deaf, students have camped out in protest. Women coming home from a Monday dance in cocktail dresses stepped over pizza boxes at a midnight rally. Early yesterday, bleary students woke up, shivered, swallowed coffee, then blocked the entrances to the Northeast Washington campus and made their demands.

After their meeting with Fernandes yesterday, many students yelled, turned their backs and returned to the gates, taping up yellow banners reading, "NOT WITHOUT US."

They said they do not like Fernandes's leadership style, the way the search was performed and the feeling that they have been ignored.

One alumnus said the disagreement was between those who want Gallaudet to be an academic institution and those who want it to be the center of deaf culture. Some students said the fight was about means of communication, as technology and medicine change the experience of deafness. Others said the issue was racial diversity: A strong black candidate did not even make the top three, they said.

The National Black Deaf Advocates held a news conference yesterday at a church in Northwest Washington and expressed similar concerns.

The Gallaudet faculty called a special meeting for Monday to discuss resolutions about the presidential selection and the search process.

It has been an emotional tangle since Jordan announced that he would step down at the end of the year. The last presidential search, in 1988, sent protesters marching to the board of trustees meeting, the Capitol and the White House, as students demanded -- and got -- a deaf president. It was a turning point for the deaf community.

This time, all the finalists were deaf. But since the Deaf President Now protests that brought in Jordan, the head of Gallaudet is expected to be much more than an academic leader.

"Jane Fernandes doesn't have the ability to be the next icon of the deaf," signed Sara Stallard, a graduate student. "She doesn't have the ability to speak for us all."

Polls in the student paper registered minuscule support for Fernandes, and nearly two-thirds of faculty members who responded to a poll said she was "unacceptable."

Some people were angry that despite that message, she was chosen by the board.

Students made their demands yesterday morning: Reopen the search process, they said, and promise no reprisals for protesters.

After 1 1/2 hours of talks, Fernandes and Jordan came to the gatehouse near Florida Avenue, and a few of the student leaders said they now believe the search process was fair. The students encouraged the crowd to ask questions, and a long and heated back-and-forth began with hundreds watching.

How could Fernandes expect to lead without support on campus? one student asked. Fernandes responded that many such conversations would help her build support during the eight-month transition period.

She apologized if she seemed disrespectful of students in the past and promised to do better to be more visible and personable.

Jordan told them this is not another Deaf President Now movement -- it's not a civil rights issue. A student said, "No, they didn't listen to us," just as the board ignored student demands in 1988.

Jordan said: "Students were heard. They just didn't agree with you."

"Are we going to back down? No!" a woman signed, and a roar of agreement rolled through the crowd. Sophomore Christopher Corrigan ran, waving people back to the gates, where blankets still lay on the road from the night before. Some students followed him.

"This is our home until they make the right decision," he said.

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