Gallaudet Chooses Interim President

Robert Davila, 74, a Gallaudet alumnus, will be the new leader of the university, taking over as interim president in January.
Robert Davila, 74, a Gallaudet alumnus, will be the new leader of the university, taking over as interim president in January. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 11, 2006

When the board chairwoman announced yesterday that Robert Davila will be the next leader of Gallaudet University, the crowd in the auditorium at the school for the deaf rose to their feet and waved their hands in the air to applaud.

Just weeks ago, the university in Northeast Washington was in chaos, shut down and deeply divided by protests over an incoming president. Now Davila, 74, takes on a school whose future is at stake, and the campus seems united and hopeful.

Davila, a nationally known deaf leader, steps out of retirement to become interim president next month. He spoke with affection of the school but also shared a full slate of ideas. He told his audience yesterday that they would move forward because they love Gallaudet. "If we cannot do it together, it will not happen," he said.

It was as though the campus sighed with relief after months spent fighting over the last presidential appointment, with many feeling that academic and other problems on the campus will no longer be ignored.

"Everyone is thrilled. They're thrilled," said Andrew Lange, head of the alumni association, whose pager kept buzzing as people across the country watched a webcast of Davila's speech.

"He has something that pleases everybody," said Mark Weinberg, chairman of the faculty senate. "He knows the university, knows the federal bureaucracy, knows higher education issues, and he's highly respected in the deaf community."

The son of migrant farm workers from Mexico, Davila grew up poor and went on to become a teacher, administrator and assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education.

This role may be his greatest challenge yet.

The last presidential appointment, of former provost Jane K. Fernandes, was terminated by the board in late October after students had shut down the university for several days, the faculty voted no confidence, students were arrested and about 2,000 protesters marched on the U.S. Capitol.

Davila will have to take on divisive issues such as racial tensions and debates over the importance of American Sign Language to the school, cultural and social issues that take on added weight because Gallaudet is for many the heart of the deaf world.

Perhaps even more daunting are the academic challenges at the school.

The school is being scrutinized by both the federal government, which provides about two-thirds of its funding, and its accrediting group.

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