Opponents, Board Discuss President

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 12, 2006

Protesters at Gallaudet University said late last night that after 10 hours of mediated talks with members of the board of trustees over the past two days, they don't expect an imminent solution to the standoff over the new president.

They will continue protesting today, said Richard Lytle, a professor speaking for the coalition of faculty, students, staff and alumni who have been protesting the May 1 appointment of Jane K. Fernandes and what they say is a flawed search process.

Despite what he described as the board's willingness to talk about other issues, Lytle said protesters did not think that trustees were willing to consider their demand to reopen the search for a president. Board members will meet today, seniors will graduate, and the newly united group of protesters will move forward with new plans, he said, spreading their message off campus, in particular onto Capitol Hill.

Fernandes has said repeatedly, including earlier this week after a no-confidence vote by faculty members, that she would not consider stepping aside. Longtime President I. King Jordan has had a similar message for protesters: The process was fair, and the decision won't be changed.

And yet, the strategizing and the talks continued.

Advocates have been making their cases on Capitol Hill. Because more than two-thirds of the school's budget comes from Congress, lawmakers' goodwill is crucial.

Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), one of three congressionally appointed trustees, attended the executive session yesterday morning. He was not involved in interviewing candidates or the vote for Fernandes, he said last night, but board members know his position. "I think she's very qualified for the job, and I support the decision the board made," he said.

He said that he could not disclose the specifics of the meeting but that he would return to the Hill to share what he learned. "I felt it was important to come here today" to listen to the concerns. "We spend an enormous amount of federal dollars here."

The Department of Education will spend $107 million this year at Gallaudet, according to an Office of Management and Budget report, the estimated annual average cost per university student on the Northeast Washington campus was about $46,000 in fiscal 2004, and the undergraduate graduation rate was just 42 percent.

LaHood and a university spokeswoman said the report was done by people who did not take into account Gallaudet's unique mission to serve deaf students and that another assessment was underway to evaluate the school in that context.

Early yesterday, professors and students lined the second-floor hall as trustees entered. They held small signs with such slogans as "You can't have a leader with no followers."

Board member Ken H. Levinson said the selection was not a popularity contest; trustees chose a president in a fair process: "There was overwhelming support for Jane. She was definitely the most-qualified candidate."

For several hours after the executive session, alumni, staff, faculty and student leaders talked in a closed-door session with the full board.

Yesterday, the National Association of the Deaf called on the board in a letter to "take serious and corrective action -- today."

The group criticized Fernandes and Jordan for being divisive by explaining the protest as a cultural struggle focused on whether Fernandes is "deaf enough" to be a leader in the deaf community. The board should address "the real issues at hand -- exactly why loss of leadership and trust has transpired," the letter said.

Fernandes has supporters who, as Jordan did, praise her intelligence, vision for the school and emphasis on Gallaudet's role as an inclusive university that can serve the broad spectrum of deaf and hard-of-hearing students, from those who grew up speaking English and attending mainstream schools to those whose native language is American Sign Language and who attended deaf schools.

Others say Fernandes was a top-down manager who has not earned the respect of the campus. When she became provost six years ago, many professors were outraged. Some said she was handpicked by the president against the faculty's wishes and the governance process.

The faculty registered its objections with a vote.

Some faculty opponents also said she was granted tenure without the usual oversight.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company