Gallaudet Faculty Dissents

Gallaudet students react to no-confidence votes on the president-elect.
Gallaudet students react to no-confidence votes on the president-elect. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 9, 2006

The faculty at Gallaudet University last night expressed a lack of confidence in Jane K. Fernandes and in the board of trustees' decision to name her to be the school's next president. The votes, intended to pressure the board to reopen the search for a president, generated shouts of joy from a crowd waiting outside.

During last night's closed-door, standing-room-only faculty meeting, a resolution of support for Fernandes failed by a vote of 49 to 96. Faculty members then went on to vote 77 to 68 to ask Fernandes to step aside and 85 to 58 to call for the search to be reopened, with no reprisals against anti-Fernandes protesters on the Northeast Washington campus.

The faculty also passed an 80 to 57 vote of no confidence in the board's decision and a 93 to 47 vote of no confidence in Fernandes.

Some said they objected to the selection of Fernandes because they did not think she did a good job as provost at Gallaudet during the past six years, and some said she was not the right person to represent the deaf community. The school is for many the emotional center of deaf culture.

Board members have defended the selection process as including multiple opportunities for people on campus to weigh in. They said that although Fernandes was not the popular choice, they were sure she was the right choice for Gallaudet.

After the vote, senior Anthony Mowl spoke, through an interpreter, on behalf of a coalition of faculty, students, staff and alumni. He said: "Jane Fernandes must resign as president of Gallaudet University. We will not accept anything less."

Since Fernandes was appointed last week, students and others have protested the search process, which they say unfairly eliminated strong candidates and did not include enough emphasis on racial and ethnic diversity. The outcome seemed predetermined, protesters said.

Margaret Vitullo, a member of the sociology faculty, said she helped write the resolution in support of Fernandes. "It's not true that no one supports Jane Fernandes," Vitullo said. "One-third of the faculty supported this. People are afraid to vote for this."

Vitullo said that although protests highlighted some campus issues, having Fernandes step down and voting no confidence in the board's decision won't solve those problems.

More than 50 people waited outside the room, signing constantly and typing messages on BlackBerry-type devices while awaiting results. Professor Jeff Lewis said "the board of trustees has caused a huge mess on campus."

Yesterday afternoon before the faculty meeting, Fernandes wrote in an e-mail: "There has been no change in my position whatsoever. The Board will not ask me to step down. And I will not step down."

She declined to comment last night, but the interim chairman of the board issued a statement. Celia May Baldwin said board members were disappointed to learn of the vote. "The presidential search process was conducted fairly in every regard," she said.

Baldwin said it is important for the campus community to know that there is faculty support for the board. "It is clear that there are many in our community who, more than anything, want the protest to conclude peaceably and quickly so that Gallaudet University can move onward," she said.

Fernandes has said she is caught up in a larger fight about deaf identity. Medicine and technology are changing what it's like to be deaf, and some members had hoped, she said, for a president who grew up using sign language rather than speaking. She was born deaf but learned American Sign Language when she was 23.

The choice of a president at Gallaudet carries considerable symbolic weight off campus as well as on. The longtime president, I. King Jordan, who will step down at the end of the year after an eight-month transition with Fernandes, was chosen to lead the school after student protesters in 1988 demanded a deaf president.

The Deaf President Now campaign launched a civil rights movement that helped change laws to give people with disabilities more opportunities. Now many look to the president of Gallaudet, the 1,900-student school, to speak for deaf people.

The 1988 protest was a liberating moment, said Andrew J. Imparato, president of the American Association of People With Disabilities, as deaf people rose up and the world saw how oppressed they felt by an institution that was supposed to serve them. "A lot of us see Dr. Jordan as an international disabilities rights leader," he said, so many are closely watching the controversy at Gallaudet.

Baldwin and Trustee Tom L. Humphries met with protesters yesterday morning for the first time; the 90-minute talk ended without a resolution. The officials reiterated the board's resolve to stand by Fernandes.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company