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From Gallaudet to Capitol, a March in Step With History

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.

Friday night, a group of faculty members wore academic robes and held a candlelight vigil to underscore last week's vote of no-confidence in the board and Jordan.

Last night's homecoming football game against a team from Walter Reed Army Medical Center was moved to the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick.

Many alumni also have rejected Fernandes, according to the alumni association. Some of those graduates arrived in Washington and joined the protesters on university grounds, pitching tents and setting up lawn chairs near the entrance.

Support protests also have sprouted in dozens of cities across the country and overseas. More than 6,000 names are listed on an online petition.

Protests began in May when trustees announced that they had chosen Fernandes to become the next president, succeeding Jordan in January.

Students immediately objected, angry about a presidential search process they said had unfairly eliminated stronger candidates, including an African American who had been longtime chairman of the board, in favor of Fernandes, a provost so unpopular on campus that a majority of students and faculty responding to a survey said she was unacceptable.

Protesters said she does not have the leadership qualities needed to be a symbol for deaf people worldwide, as Jordan has been, and some call her ineffective.

Fernandes said she views the demonstrations not as a repudiation of her but as a symptom of a larger struggle. She said she has become a lightning rod for an issue that could define the future of Gallaudet, as cochlear implants and other technology make it easier for deaf children to speak and attend mainstream schools rather than stay in the sign-language-based deaf community.

Fernandes had strong support from Gallaudet's board of trustees when members chose her to become the school's next president. But differences of opinion about her on the board became public last week, and some trustees have privately asked her to resign.

Her supporters -- including Jordan and board Chairman Brenda Jo Brueggemann -- have said that Fernandes was the most qualified candidate, that the search process was fair and that she deserves a chance to prove herself.

This month, demonstrations began again, with students taking over an academic building and shutting down campus.

Along the march route yesterday, bystanders asked what the protest was about. At Eighth and H streets NE, some residents were angry at the disruption.

"What is all this about? Why are these people in my neighborhood? I've got to get on a bus," one woman bellowed.

But Henry Moore, who has lived on that corner for 65 years, marveled at the demonstration.

"Look at them, they must have the whole university out here," he said. "The greatest power is the power of the people. I haven't seen a thing like this down here since the Black Panthers came out."

Near the Capitol, several tourists began to bristle when their tour was cut short by a crowd carrying signs saying, "President resign now."

"What do deaf people have against President Bush? Honestly!" one woman huffed, before she was corrected by a bystander, who explained that students were talking about their university president.

Staff writer Susan Kinzie contributed to this report.

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