By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 12, 2006
Protests over the next president at Gallaudet University intensified yesterday when the football team decided after midnight to join the demonstrations by blocking the campus gates, shutting down the school for the deaf.
As faculty pressure tightened on incoming president Jane K. Fernandes to resign before she takes office in January, she repeated her refusal to do so. Students angrily confronted longtime President I. King Jordan, alumni flocked to the campus and a counter-protest movement grew during a day of upheaval.
"I can't imagine a worse scenario," said David Ward, president of the American Council on Education. "I see nothing but an unhappy ending here."
The day forced a question: Just how much chaos can a school take?
Last night, Jordan issued a statement saying, "This illegal and unlawful behavior must stop," and he warned protesters that they face possible suspension and arrest.
Noah Beckman, president of the student body government, said students will not negotiate. "We will not let the campus go unless Jane Fernandes resigns," he said.
For the past week, the demonstrations that rattled the campus in May when Fernandes was named have flared again. What started with opposition to her and the way she was chosen has grown into a far more complicated and consuming standoff that has paralyzed the school during the midterm exam week. And a growing number of people have become annoyed by the continuous disruption of education.
Yesterday afternoon, faculty leaders tried to hand-deliver a letter to Fernandes and then e-mailed it to her. "Gallaudet University is in crisis," the letter said, and the faculty leaders appealed to her to resign as president designate.
"The whole school is speaking now," said junior Chris Corrigan, a protest leader. Students announced in an e-mail that there had been a coup d'universit é and that they no longer recognized Jordan as president.
Jordan, who has been a civil rights hero to many deaf people since student protests carried him into office nearly 20 years ago, making him the first deaf university president, stood in a mass of emotional protesters demanding answers yesterday morning.
Gallaudet is watched by deaf people worldwide; it's a symbol of strength, accomplishment and possibility, and it carries an emotional weight far greater than most schools. At the same time, it's a world unto itself, with generations of families calling it home. And accusations and misunderstandings quickly reverberate in the close-knit deaf community.
Students and administrators had been in talks late Tuesday to resolve a standoff at a classroom building taken over by students Friday. But football players frustrated by the disruption of classes and by the stalemate decided to try to speed things up, said captain Jason Coleman. He said he was upset about the school's low graduation rates, which have hovered for years around 40 percent, and asked why Fernandes, who has been provost for the past six years, had not been able to change that.
As messages spread from pager to pager overnight, the crowd grew from dozens to hundreds of students early yesterday. Scores of burly football players stood in lines with their shoulders thrown back defiantly, glowering and blocking the main entrance. With a drum pounding in the background, students surged around the few cars that tried to get in to the campus, which includes elementary and secondary schools for deaf students, arguing in sign language with angry drivers.
"Resign now," Coleman said he would tell Fernandes. "It's as simple as that. If you resign, we can move on with our lives."
Fernandes sent a statement by BlackBerry yesterday afternoon. "Although the current situation is serious, if I . . . abandoned my commitment at this point, which I have no intention of doing, it would only become worse for the University, in general, and future Boards of Trustees and presidents, in particular. We live in a country that is governed by the rule of law, not anarchy."
The day was full of surreal scenes, as the shutdown forced the university's drama onto the sidewalks. The chairman of the faculty senate went through negotiations to deliver a message to Jordan, arguments spun out in view of all, and a professor delivered lectures at the side of a road.
Interim Provost Michael Moore wandered outside the gates, exhausted, until a student let him in for negotiations. He thought (and students agreed) that a real step forward had been made before talks broke around midnight, he said shortly after 8 a.m.
Jordan was swarmed when he appeared at the front gates. Pressing up against him, students confronted him about negotiations, about accommodations for blind students, about why Fernandes wasn't there, about lies they said had been told.
That moment offered a glimpse of how many issues are swirling. Somehow, the naming of Fernandes sparked a protest that is now about far more than just one person.
Some are protesting because they think the board hasn't listened, some because they think Fernandes will not promote deaf culture, some because they think the administration has lied. Some are mad about perceived racism on campus, some because they see discrimination against deaf people even here, the one place they expect equal access. Some said protesters were consistently denied interpreters, cutting off their means of communication with the hearing world.
And from the beginning, there have been complaints about Fernandes from those who say she has alienated people, walled herself off and failed as a leader.
With each argument, Fernandes, the board, Jordan and her other supporters have tried to refute, resolve or explain. The chairman of the board said yesterday in an e-mail that the lockdown was unacceptable and that the administration would continue negotiating with students but that the protesters' shifting demands had made it difficult.
Jordan said in a statement yesterday afternoon that the campus has been held hostage. "I have been asked why I haven't used police to end the stand off. It is because I care about the safety of all of our students more than the protesters care about anything but getting their way. . . . The faculty members who are instigating and manipulating the students have simply gone too far in pursuit of their own agendas."
A small counter-protest formed at another gate, with professors and students expressing anger about the chaos. And a large number, put by research scientist Charles Reilly at hundreds, signed a statement saying that they had different opinions about the issues but agreed that the protests had gone too far by disrupting education.
"Over the past week, we as students have felt like we live in a war zone," said Danielle Henkel, a junior who said she may transfer.
"It's infuriating," said Debra Josephson Abrams, a student and school employee. "There are more and more people like me who are sick and tired and fed up with the way this is going. . . . [The protesters] do not see the harm they are doing to the university."
Not everyone shut out was mad. "I'm saddened," professor Charles Pearce said outside the gates. "I've been here 30 years, and I can't go on my own campus."
Professor Bob Harrison, who said he understood the protesters' concerns but wanted to teach, nodded. "There's a real problem with communication here," he said.
Staff writer Paul Schwartzman contributed to this report.