Intensity of Gallaudet Unrest Surprised Incoming Leader

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Until about a week ago, incoming president Jane K. Fernandes thought things were going well at Gallaudet University.

Since May, when protests erupted for two weeks after she was named the next leader of the school for the deaf, Fernandes said she has been trying to move forward, working with people on campus and developing a diversity plan to address issues of discrimination that are upsetting many in the community. And things were quiet over the summer. "So I was surprised by the intensity of this," she said.

Instead of her problems being behind her, Fernandes's troubles seem to be escalating.

Yesterday morning, a bomb threat -- the second in several days -- cleared the campus. Hundreds of students have taken over one of the main campus buildings, forcing dozens of classes to be relocated the week of midterm exams, as protesters demand a search for a different president. For more than a week, students have been leading angry, sometimes uncivil protests. Late last month, faculty members had a contentious meeting about the issue; and smaller support protests have occurred in places including California, Texas, Minnesota and Indianapolis.

In a letter to the Gallaudet community, two leaders of the National Association of the Deaf said: "This is, by any definition, a crisis."

Fernandes's supporters say she is the best hope for bringing the university, the heart of deaf culture for many worldwide, back together when she starts her new job Jan. 1.

"I have a huge responsibility . . . " she said, "to be president of a university for . . . all the different kinds of students we have here." She will lead an $800,000 initiative to further the school's diversity goals and, later this semester, to get "some expert assistance on how we can work with each other, to be respectful of each other on campus."

Her opponents say her response thus far proves what they've been saying all along: She's not a strong enough leader for a job that means much more than just directing an academic institution.

Since May, protesters say, the university has only become more deeply divided.

"What is her plan? And, what is she waiting for? She had all summer to bring the community together, but as you can see, [that] didn't happen," wrote Andrew J. Lange, president of the Gallaudet University Alumni Association, which is setting up an independent Web site because it cannot send e-mail to alumni without university approval.

The second wave of demonstrations began last week when the board of trustees met on campus. Protesters say that the way Fernandes was chosen was unfair and that the board has ignored people on campus for too long.

Last night, hundreds of students agreed to spend one more night in the classroom building. They awaited a response from administrators to a proposal that they would leave the building if the university satisfied 24 demands, including guaranteeing their right to protest in specific areas.

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