By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 3, 2006 11:12 AM
The selection of a new president of Gallaudet University, the nation's only liberal arts university for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, sparked a student walkout and protest today at the school's campus in Northeast Washington.
Students objected to the appointment of Jane Fernandes, who is deaf and is currently the university's provost, because she did not grow up using American Sign Language. Some students also criticized Fernandes for not having warm relations with students.
Within moments, hundreds of students had blocked the main gates of the campus. Some shouted. Some scrawled angry words on their bare stomachs in thick black paint. Others climbed onto stone fences to sign to the growing crowd. Hands flying in American Sign Language, they roared, "We want to be heard!"
The presidency of Gallaudet is a position carrying enormous weight for many as the symbolic center of the deaf community.
Fernandes replaces I. King Jordan, 62, who was the first deaf person to lead the 141-year-old school. When a hearing president was named in 1988, a deaf rights movement erupted. Students marched to the White House, the Capitol and the Mayflower Hotel, where trustees were meeting, and demanded a "Deaf President Now." Jordan eventually got the job.
Although all the finalists for the presidency this time were deaf, the selection was still divisive. Some complained that the board once again was ignoring the campus community; some decried the lack of racial diversity; some wanted a "truly deaf" president, one who grew up without hearing and spoken language.
For Fernandes, the criticism often centered on personality: Many said she was cold and aloof and condescending. "She doesn't say 'hi'," one student's poster read.
The students quickly came up with a new rallying cry: "Better president now."
The selection of a new president was followed closely not only on campus but around the world by Web logs, which were filled with emotional debate.
The other two finalists were Stephen F. Weiner, associate professor in the department of communication studies at Gallaudet and Ronald J. Stern, superintendent and chief executive office of the New Mexico School for the Deaf in Santa Fe, N.M.
Jordan will step down in December.