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From Gallaudet to Capitol, a March in Step With History

Thousands of Gallaudet protesters, including students, alumni and faculty, march to the Capitol, demanding Jane K. Fernandes resign as the school's next president. From left, Ruthie Jordan and Bridget Klein.
Thousands of Gallaudet protesters, including students, alumni and faculty, march to the Capitol, demanding Jane K. Fernandes resign as the school's next president. From left, Ruthie Jordan and Bridget Klein. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

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By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 22, 2006

Signing protest slogans with the animated flutter of their hands, about 2,000 demonstrators snaked through Northeast Washington from Gallaudet University to the steps of the Capitol yesterday, demanding the resignation of the incoming president of the nation's premier university for the deaf.

To the hearing population, it seemed a quiet protest, lacking the roar and megaphone-aided chants that are staples of Washington demonstrations.

But for those familiar with American Sign Language, it was a cacophony of emotion and words, with students voicing their opinions in coordinated sign-language chants as alumni waved colorful posters and thousands of members of this close-knit community engaged in signed conversations after converging here from all over the country.

"I'm so impressed with the students' resolve. I flew out here and just joined the hunger strike," said Larry Vollmar, 60, of Fremont, Calif., who graduated from Gallaudet in 1970. Several students say they have been on a hunger strike for about a week.

The march became the university's de facto homecoming celebration this weekend after three weeks of disruptive protests led to the arrest of about 130 students and prompted the administration to postpone the annual festivities. Scores of alumni came anyway and punctuated the protest with their reunion embraces.

There were class buttons from 1959 and 1966 and even a double stroller labeled "Future class of 2027," a nod to the fact that the university has educated several generations of some families.

And for many of them, the protests that have roiled the campus during the past three weeks over the appointment of Jane K. Fernandes as president reminded them of the scene on campus nearly 20 years ago. In 1988, students also stormed the university, blockaded the campus and marched to Capitol Hill, demanding "a deaf president now," after a long line of presidents had all been hearing.

"Wow, this is deja vu all over again," said Greg Hlibok, who addressed the crowd in front of the Capitol, as he had in 1988, when he was student body president and one of the leaders who helped usher in the university's first deaf president, I. King Jordan.

"The spirit is the same. The pride is the same. The self-empowerment is the same," Hlibok said to the applause of supporters -- thousands of open hands raised in the air and waved side to side.

This time, though, the issue is more complicated. Fernandes is deaf, but those who oppose her object to the way she has performed as provost, the way she was selected and the way the board has responded to their protests. And because she did not grow up using sign language, some say Fernandes is not a strong enough advocate of preserving traditional deaf culture.

In 1988, hours after Hlibok led a crowd to Capitol Hill, Elisabeth Zinser announced her resignation as president. But that was not the case yesterday.

Fernandes, who has been at Gallaudet since 1995, said Friday that she intends to become the next president, even after several of the 20 members of the board of trustees said they no longer support her and have asked her to resign. Faculty protesters said 82 percent of their colleagues at the university want her to leave.

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