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Unbowed Against the Tide
Gallaudet Leader's Principles Define -- and Threaten -- Her Career

By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 29, 2006

One day when Jane K. Fernandes was in second grade, she got up to sharpen her pencil. When she turned to go back to her seat, she saw her classmates laughing at her. Because she is deaf, she had not heard the teacher ordering her to sit down. Humiliated, she tore out of the classroom and ran home.

Her mother, who is also deaf, sent her right back to school. She was not raising a quitter.

Fernandes, now 50, is reaching back to the lessons of her childhood as she wages the battle of her career. And once again, she says, she will not be the one who quits.

Selected to become the next president of Gallaudet University, the country's premier school for the deaf, she says she is fighting for principles that have guided her work as a deaf educator. Yet growing numbers of angry students, faculty and alumni say Fernandes is the wrong person for the job.

Her future could be decided today as the school's board of trustees is scheduled to meet after a month of hunger strikes and demonstrations, as well as a campus shutdown. Protesters have accused Fernandes of being heavy-handed, vindictive and aloof during her tenures as provost and head of Gallaudet's elementary and high schools. Some have even questioned whether a woman who grew up speech reading, or lip reading, so adeptly that some college professors never realized she couldn't hear can identify with most deaf people.

In a time of major cultural shifts in the deaf community, Fernandes has emerged as a lightning rod for the dissatisfactions and fears. "Jane Is Killing Our Future," says a banner that has been displayed for weeks at the main entrance of the 142-year-old campus on Florida Avenue NE. Nearby hangs a cartoon drawing of Fernandes, a crown atop her brown bangs, her fists balled up in frustration.

"I let my accomplishments stand for themselves and speak for themselves," she said in a recent interview, saying that the attacks have been "very hurtful."

But in the tense, even paranoid, climate that dominates the campus, the very qualities that have led Fernandes to succeed -- her tenacity, her drive, her unwillingness to bow -- might be working against her. It could be that, given her background, she knows no other way.

As a small girl in Massachusetts, she took piano lessons for the discipline and structure, even though she couldn't hear the music. As an undergraduate at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., without interpreters or support services, she became fluent in French. In graduate school at the University of Iowa, she embraced her identity as a deaf person; after learning American Sign Language, she won the Miss Deaf Iowa title, promising to bridge the gulf between the deaf and hearing worlds. Working with deaf children in Hawaii, she built a glowing reputation as she fought state officials who tended to view the deaf as mentally disadvantaged.

But in her 11 years at Gallaudet, her no-nonsense style has often rubbed others the wrong way. Sometimes she has walked across campus so deep in thought that she has failed to recognize and greet friends.

"I call her inner-directed," said James Fernandes, her husband, a retired Gallaudet communications studies professor who, like the couple's two teenage children, is not deaf.

"Jane's first concern is never: How will this play? How will this look? Will everybody like me if I make this decision? Her first concern is: What is the proper thing to do? What is going to make this program work? That's who she is, and people who want a glad-hander politician, well, that's not what she is first."

'I Had Found My People'

Jane Kelleher, the eldest of five children, was born in Worcester, Mass., in 1956, a time when services for the deaf were minimal and the widespread use of sign language lay in the future.

Like her mother, Kathleen, and a younger brother, Joseph, Fernandes suffered from nerve deafness, said her father, Richard Kelleher, 76, a retired district judge who lives on Cape Cod. Doctors told him that the condition was hereditary and that there was no cure.

Richard Kelleher did not know any deaf people other than his wife, "an expert lip reader" who had learned to get by in the hearing world. "When you talk about mainstreaming, Jane was mainstreamed because I didn't know anything else," he said.

Like her mother, the young girl was trained by a dedicated speech and hearing teacher with the Worcester public school system, Katherine Madigan, who also gave her private lessons. Fernandes learned to speak so clearly that years later, she could often hide her deafness from acquaintances.

Sometimes, her father said, it broke his heart to see his daughter, so smart and motivated, struggle to keep up with other children. When her brothers played ice hockey, she took ice skating lessons. She triumphed with figure eights and other precision moves, but she was lost when it came to skating with music, Kelleher said.

At Trinity College, she joined the fencing team; that suited her better, her father said. She majored in comparative literature and spent a summer in France. But it would be her graduate school years, at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, that would transform Fernandes and her relationship with the world.

At first when she got to Iowa, Fernandes took her usual approach, not calling attention to her deafness. Many of her classmates and professors did not realize she was deaf. Fernandes was in Alan F. Nagel's seminar on John Milton her first semester, and he thought she was "simply a quiet graduate student -- I always had respect for students who did what was required and didn't jump in and speak a lot."

It turned out to be a pivotal year.

It was serendipity, Fernandes recalled, that led her to tag along with a roommate who visited a community deaf club for a class assignment. Once a popular concept across the country, the clubs had dwindled until they existed only in the Midwest. When she walked into the Cedar Rapids Deaf Club, she got the surprise of her life.

"There I saw about 300 deaf people, all signing," Fernandes said. "It was a life-changing event. A complete bombshell, in a silent room. For the first time, I knew that there were a lot of other people in the world just like me. I learned that I was not alone. I had found my people."

Inspired, she set about learning American Sign Language, applying the techniques she had used to learn French and Italian. "I soaked up ASL like a sponge, literally growing from a glass half-empty to a glass half-full," she said.

At the same time, her interests in the deaf community and deaf rights were ignited. Soon, she was urging the university to employ interpreters. In 1983, she entered the Miss Deaf Iowa contest and won, giving speeches about the need for the deaf and hearing communities to come together. The next year, she was third runner-up in the Miss Deaf America pageant.

Nagel, who became her faculty adviser, said she underwent a metamorphosis, "a real blossoming of someone who was both very intelligent and very strong of character," he said.

Fernandes recalls that period as a clear demarcation point in her life.

"I was educated in how to behave like a hearing person, and I did it pretty well," she said. "But psychologically and socially, it took a toll. Like denying a fundamental part of who I am."

After meeting other deaf people and learning sign language, her deafness ceased to be a source of embarrassment. The word she uses to describe the person she became is "whole."

"Rather than try everything to cover up being deaf or avoid being caught as deaf, I was proud to be deaf and wanted everyone to know it," she said.

Leadership Takes Shape

One recent evening, Fernandes returned to her family's 10-acre farm in Anne Arundel County after spending a few nights on campus in crisis mode. She was cheered when one of her shelties was glad to see her.

Fernandes has been comforted by her husband and children. Sean, 15, is interested in languages and foreign affairs. Erin, 13, plays saxophone in her school band. All are fluent in sign language. Fernandes and her mother still communicate with each other through lip reading.

Fernandes and her husband met at Gallaudet, when he was a professor and she was chairwoman of the Department of Sign Communication. When he was sent to Hawaii, his native state, to establish and direct a regional center of Gallaudet, she joined him and set up Hawaii's interpretive education program.

In 1990, she took the helm of the Hawaii Center for the Deaf and Blind, becoming the first deaf woman to head a state-supported school for the deaf. On the verge of closing, it had just 12 students when she took over; by the time she left five years later, it had more than 60 students.

Teacher Steve Laracuente joined Fernandes's advisory council. Fernandes, known as J.K., was "a force to be reckoned with," he said.

"Hawaii was behind in so many areas, and J.K. was helping Hawaii to catch up with the mainland," Laracuente said. Fernandes brought in reading and writing experts to improve teachers' skills, he said, and regularly did battle with her bosses at the state Department of Education about the need to address issues involving the deaf.

"J.K. was very honest, open and outspoken, so if she did not like what you did, then you would know about it," he said. "Some sensitive people who misunderstood her intentions did not like that much, much like the current protesters at Gallaudet. She was especially that way with the students. She did not feel sorry for them."

When the Fernandeses returned to Gallaudet in 1995, Jane Fernandes became vice president of the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center, the elementary and secondary schools on campus. There, the seeds may have been sown for the current controversy, as Fernandes alienated many faculty members and parents with her reorganization of the center.

Critics said she was autocratic and unfeeling, delivering the message that whoever did not like her approach could leave. But Fernandes said she brought needed change to the center, including dismantling a remedial program with smaller classes that was used predominantly by black students. "A segregated school existed within the school itself," she said.

The resentments deepened as Fernandes became provost in 2000, then exploded into international headlines in May when she was selected as the next president of Gallaudet and the first round of protests ensued.

"The problems are rooted in Dr. Fernandes's leadership style," said E. Lynn Jacobowitz, a professor in Gallaudet's Department of ASL and Deaf Studies. "Many have described the style as 'management by intimidation,' an approach which has led to feelings of insecurity, hostility and fear."

Some critics have said Fernandes's famous determination has hardened into stubbornness as she has dug in her heels, refusing to resign, as protesters have demanded. She said that she is confident that the problems will be resolved and that Gallaudet will get back to educating the deaf, with her as its president, come January.

"My belief is that there are some deep-seated issues in the deaf community, and these issues have been brought to the forefront, unfurled, if you will," she said. "If you think of it like steel that has to be tempered through fire, we're doing that now. We're going through the fire."

Staff writer Susan Kinzie contributed to this report.

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