By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 16, 2006
The president of the National Association of the Deaf weighed in yesterday on what she called the "totally unnecessary" arrests Friday night of 133 protesters at Gallaudet University in a dispute with campus administrators, and urged the board of trustees to take command of a situation that "is out of control."
Bobbie Beth Scoggins, head of the advocacy group, arrived at the Washington campus yesterday afternoon to cheers from scores of students and alumni, who have taken shifts occupying tents around the campus entrance for the past week. They shut down the campus for three days to protest the selection of former university provost Jane K. Fernandes as the school's next president.
Scoggins's appearance underscored the impact of the confrontation in the international deaf community. She said sympathizers around the world had erected more than 70 "tent cities" in solidarity with the Gallaudet protesters, four of whom launched a hunger strike at the start of the weekend.
"The whole world is with these people here," said Scoggins. "The administration claims this is a local issue. It is not."
Scoggins, who cut short a vacation in Mexico when she learned of the arrests, continued: "The arrests never should have happened. We had other options."
Fernandes said yesterday via e-mail that the arrests, "painful as they were," were necessary to regain control of the campus, which serves the local deaf community well beyond the parameters of university education.
"The first priority and focus must be that we must re-open our campus so that our children -- infants, toddlers, elementary schoolers, high schoolers and college students -- can continue learning and not fall behind their peers," she wrote.
In an e-mail sent to the campus yesterday, Gallaudet President I. King Jordan defended the arrests and said they resulted from "a complete lack of good faith" on the part of the protesters.
"You have been heard by me. You have been heard by the Board," Jordan wrote. "We have heard you from the beginning of your protest. We have considered and discussed your points of view. We just haven't agreed with you. And we still don't."
Board Chairman Brenda Jo Brueggemann said in an e-mail that her panel had not intervened because it is charged with policy and oversight at Gallaudet, not "the management of its daily matters."
Gallaudet, which had nearly 2,000 students enrolled last year, is the only university for deaf students in the country.
In a letter to the Gallaudet board, leaders of the National Association of the Deaf said the administration had lost control and should be relieved of command over the protest. Board members, the letter stated, "must waste no further time in stepping up to their fiduciary responsibilities and removing the administration's involvement in resolution of this crisis."
The letter cited the arrests as evidence of a "growing chasm between the university administration and the students, faculty, staff and alumni" and faulted university leaders for a lack of "trust and leadership."
Scoggins reiterated that message. "I see very little support for the administration," she said, surveying the crowd behind her. "I see very little."
Administrators had the protesters arrested Friday to end the campus shutdown. Students had been warned repeatedly that they could be arrested if they did not stop blocking the school's entrance. Nearly 1,000 protesters turned out Saturday, galvanized by the arrests.
Protests against Fernandes began with the announcement in May that she would replace Jordan as president in January. Jordan, who became the first deaf president of Gallaudet in 1988, has long been a hero in the deaf community. But his decision to arrest protesters Friday made him a traitor in the minds of some.
"We no longer recognize King Jordan as university president," LaToya Plummer, a Gallaudet junior who was among those arrested, said at a news conference yesterday afternoon. A student perched on the campus wall relayed her signs to the protesters beyond.
"We're looking at the last straw here," said Lois Bragg, vice chair of the faculty senate. "The problems are intense. They have been deep for a long time. The board of trustees is asleep."
Gallaudet faculty planned to meet today to consider several resolutions, Bragg said, including a call for Fernandes to resign and possible confidence votes in the board and Jordan.
The protesters, which include large numbers of alumni and university employees as well as students, say they oppose the incoming president's leadership style and the process that led to her appointment. Fernandes has said she believes the dispute is about identity politics within the deaf community, which is struggling to synthesize technology-driven shifts in what it means to be deaf.
Fernandes angered protesters with a letter to The Washington Post, published Saturday, that suggested she was under attack by deaf-culture preservationists who view her as a threat. Fernandes learned to sign at 23 and embraces, in her words, "many ways of being deaf."
Protesters yesterday accused Fernandes of playing "the deaf card" and said the incoming president was trying to create a false impression that students deem her, in the words of Professor Dirksen Bauman, "not deaf enough."