Gallaudet's Next President Won't Bow Out
Friday, May 5, 2006
As protesters blocked every entrance to Gallaudet University yesterday, the target of their anger -- Jane K. Fernandes, the newly named president -- said she has no intention of withdrawing and believes she is caught in the middle of a cultural debate over what it means to be "deaf enough."
Born deaf, Fernandes grew up speaking rather than using sign language, went to mainstream public schools and did not learn to sign until she was 23. "All those things are markers that define what kind of deaf person I am," she said in a meeting yesterday with Washington Post editors and reporters. "We're in a little bit of an identity politics struggle on campus regarding who speaks for deaf people."
The university's faculty members are considering holding no-confidence votes Monday, faculty sources said, challenging Fernandes's selection and how the board of trustees handled the search for a successor to President I. King Jordan. The National Association of the Deaf has sent a letter urging the board to quickly resolve the unrest at Gallaudet, which for many is the cultural center of the world's deaf community.
"The protests are about much more than Jane Fernandes," said Jordan, president since students demanded a "Deaf President Now," launching a rights movement and vaulting him into the presidency in 1988. "It's about what it means to be deaf in the 21st Century."
Since Monday, when Fernandes, the current provost, was named to lead the school beginning in 2007, a growing number of students, staff, faculty and alumni have united. On Wednesday, about 1,000 people gathered in Gallaudet's field house for a rally, demanding that the search be reopened and protesters be protected from reprisals.
The opposition to Fernandes is complex and symbolic of many of the issues simmering as deaf culture changes, pushed along by science and technology and demographic shifts. As more deaf or hearing-impaired young people get cochlear implants that allow them to hear and communicate differently, and as more students go to mainstream public schools rather than schools for the deaf, some deaf people worry that American Sign Language and the shared identity could be lost.
Some agree that it is about cultural deafness; others say it is more complex.
After polls by the student newspaper showed that very few faculty members and students supported Fernandes, the board's choice shocked the campus, sophomore Kevin Fletcher said. "We felt we hadn't been heard."
For some, it is an issue of race, with a flawed search process that shocked the community when a strong black candidate and former chairman of the board, Glenn Anderson, was not one of the three finalists, despite the growing proportion of deaf children who are not white.
For some, it is proof of a board out of touch with the campus and a search that, effectively, was decided before it started.
And for some it's personality. Jordan, a charismatic leader who loves to schmooze, raised the profile of both the school and the deaf community. Now, many want the university's president to be much more than an academic head; they want someone who will give voice to deaf people. Jordan called it a "deaf mayor," someone chosen by the people to represent them.
Fernandes said the controversy is about who speaks for Gallaudet and who belongs there. "The answer has to be it belongs to all."