Faculty Prepare to Take Sides on New President

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 8, 2006

The campus was supposed to have emptied out by now, with exams over at Gallaudet University.

But the lawn by the front gates is still packed with tents as students continue to camp out, protesting the selection of the new president. Some alumni have come from elsewhere in the country -- including leaders of the 1988 protests that forced the Board of Trustees to choose a deaf president and created a civil-rights rallying cry for the deaf. They have joined a coalition of students, staff, faculty and other alumni wearing blue "Unity for Gallaudet" T-shirts and demanding that the search process be reopened.

Today, the faculty will meet to consider no-confidence motions on president-elect Jane K. Fernandes, on the Board of Trustees that chose her and on the search process that some say lacked diversity and fairness.

"We all know this is wrong," professor E. Lynn Jacobowitz said. "There might be a few who disagree . . . but 99.9 percent of the people here support this protest."

Fernandes has said that the outcry is about something much bigger than just her; it's about cultural conflicts, she said, with some people wanting the president of Gallaudet to define the identity of the deaf community.

It is an emotional issue as more people get cochlear implants, which allow them to hear and speak more easily, and go to mainstream public schools rather than schools for the deaf and hard of hearing. Some wonder what will happen to deaf culture, and to Gallaudet.

On Friday, nine professors with backgrounds similar to Fernandes's -- they grew up speaking, went to public schools and didn't learn American Sign Language or immerse themselves in the deaf community until later in life -- wrote her an open letter saying she had misunderstood the reasons for the opposition. The real issues, they wrote, are about a flawed search process and ineffective leadership.

I. King Jordan, the longtime president who plans to work with Fernandes for the next eight months and then step down, said recently that the board selected an academician with vision for the future of the university, "not the winner of the popularity contest." The board can't give the decision over to protesters, he said, without long-term implications for the governance of the school. It's not, he said, another "Deaf President Now," the movement that vaulted him into the presidency.

Jane Norman, a professor who was one of Fernandes's references, sent a widely distributed e-mail saying that protesters were pressuring others to join them. "We are going through a very difficult time but we will emerge as an inclusive university," she wrote. "Gallaudet is for all. Dr. Jane Fernandes has worked long and hard on diversity. Dr. Fernandes is our 9th president and will lead us into the 21st century."

After protesters shut down all entrances to the campus one day last week, two trustees agreed to come to campus to talk with them Friday evening. Hundreds waited outside, including a dog wearing a "Pet me to reopen the search process" T-shirt, wagging its tail in the crowd.

The 750-seat auditorium was full to overflowing, mostly with students, and the crowd soon turned angry as people stood on stage to sign questions to board members Celia May L. Baldwin, interim chairman, and Tom Humphries, who emphasized that they have heard the concerns but that the board will not change its decision.

"I beg of you," Baldwin signed, "to put your trust in us. Give us a chance. Give us an opportunity to prove to you that the selection was accurate."

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