By Susan Kinzie and Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 15, 2006
Gallaudet University reopened yesterday, the morning after 133 protesters were arrested to break up a three-day shutdown of the nationally renowned school for the deaf over the choice of Jane K. Fernandes to be president.
Although the arrests resolved the immediate crisis, the university remains as deeply fractured as it ever has been, and no one sees the reopening as an end to the bitter confrontation with the school's leadership.
Last night, about 1,000 protesters stood shoulder to shoulder from the front gates of the school in Northeast Washington up a hill to Chapel Hall. Fernandes remains the target of their wrath. But the current president, I. King Jordan, who has been hailed as a heroic symbol of deaf accomplishment, is now viewed by many as a traitor for ordering the arrests by campus police.
"We can't believe King had us arrested," said sophomore Calvin Doudt, standing in the autumn sunshine yesterday amid a group of protesters. "We are his students."
The protesters are encouraging Gallaudet students not to return to classes tomorrow, when they are scheduled to resume.
"We will not quit until our demands are met, period," said Andrew Lange, head of the alumni association.
As supporters brought boxes of ramen noodles and Pop-Tarts for protesters camped out by the gates, faculty leaders sent a letter to the board of trustees demanding trustees come to campus immediately.
"This has escalated beyond the administration's control," professor Khadijat Rashid said.
The resentment toward Fernandes has been building for a long time. Some former employees at the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center on Gallaudet's campus are still upset about her leadership there a decade ago, saying she created an atmosphere of distrust. Some professors are still unhappy they were not consulted about her appointment as provost six years ago.
And some black students and staff members were upset by the presidential search process, which eliminated a strong African American candidate in favor of three white people.
When Fernandes was named in May, the protests started immediately. Since then, many have complained that the board of trustees has continued to ignore their concerns.
Fernandes's supporters, including Jordan, say she has proved her abilities to lead the campus, to make it a place welcoming to all types of deafness.
She says this protest is not really about her.
The anger is amazing, Fernandes said in an interview yesterday. "I really don't understand. So I have to believe it's not about me. . . . I believe it's about evolution and change and growth in the deaf community.
"It's something we have to go through, turmoil, to get to a higher place," she added.
She explained that she sees herself at the center of colliding forces. With genetic developments, cochlear implants and other technology, and more deaf children going to mainstream schools, many are asking what will happen to deaf culture.
"I'm leading the community into the future," Fernandes said.
The community is watching: For many deaf people, Gallaudet is as much a symbol of opportunity and pride as a university.
Tent cities supporting the protesters have popped up across the country. The school's alumni association called for Fernandes to resign, citing "overwhelming support" for the protesters and unfurling a banner: "Take back Gallaudet."
Using police force to control students carries particular resonance in the deaf community. Many rely on their hands and eyes to communicate, rendering nighttime arrests, handcuffs and pepper spray potentially dangerous.
The arrests, starting about 9 p.m. Friday and continuing into early yesterday in the bright glare of police spotlights, were watched and filmed by an emotional crowd of several hundred students, parents, professors and alumni. Some climbed fences or trees or pickup trucks to see over the crowd. Some wept; others shouted, demanding that Fernandes resign, denouncing Jordan and asking who the school officials expected to lead, when so many had been dragged away.
A lawyer used sign language to ask a police officer, "Why? Why?" A board member hugged a father whose daughters had just been hauled away by police.
Interest from afar was so intense that four of the most popular deaf blogs on the Internet crashed from overuse.
After a night spent on mats at a police training academy, released students wrote their booking numbers on T-shirts, converting them into badges of pride.
"I'm going to stay here until Jane resigns," Gallaudet junior Vanessa Arp said. "Where is she now? She's hiding while the students try to make the university better. That's not what we want in a leader."
A commotion broke out midmorning yesterday at the university's main entrance when a police officer asked students to allow a van to pass. When a small group of protesters refused, the officer tried to push them out of the way and Timothy DeCelles, 22, fell and struck his head. He was treated at Howard University Hospital and released.
"There was no communication," protester Robert Mason said.
It was a recurring theme. Jordan and Fernandes decided that negotiations had failed after she met with students Friday afternoon. They told her that 600 to 700 people would continue to protest unless she resigned, she said.
Jordan came into office in 1988 on a tide of student protests, in a movement that has become a rallying cry for the deaf. They demanded a "Deaf President Now." Friday night, one of those 1988 student protest leaders, Tim Rarus, was among the first to be arrested. "I helped put you in office, now you're arresting me!" Rarus shouted.
Jordan said yesterday that the protesters chose to be arrested. They refused to open the gate, which he said needed to be done for educational and safety reasons, and sat and waited for police. "I've been president for 18 1/2 years," he said, "and I've never had a more difficult decision."
Asked whether he has heard from people saying it was a betrayal, he said he has received many e-mails, some supporting and some opposing.
"I know in my heart it was the right decision," he said, "but my heart's really pained."
Fernandes watched the arrests from a security office for a bit. "It was horrible," she said. "This is Gallaudet University. This is deaf people's home." So she left.
"I'm really," she said, pausing. "I'm struggling to find the words. I'm torn up inside."
She knows she has to face more angry people. By now, she said, it's routine. She went to the cafeteria the other day, and students confronted her. That, she said, is how they will move forward -- keep talking. Keep working through it. "I am not stepping down," she said. "I'm looking forward to the challenge."
Staff writer Megan Greenwell contributed to this report.