On Probation

Saturday, July 14, 2007

AN OUTWARD calm has returned to Gallaudet University. Gone are the protesters and their tent city, the police and the media that chronicled the school's ugly disagreement over leadership. But Gallaudet faces a crisis as real as the one that paralyzed the campus last fall. This time resolution will take more than getting rid of one person.

The world-famous school for the deaf and hard of hearing has been placed on probation by its accrediting organization. In a statement made public last week, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education outlined a list of deficiencies. If the school doesn't meet standards for leadership, academic rigor, student retention and integrity, it may lose its accreditation. That could spell the end, since students wouldn't be able to receive federal loans or transfer credits to other schools and Congress might withhold the $108 million in annual funding on which the school depends.

The commission's action caught by surprise those who thought Gallaudet's unique status as a center for deaf culture would protect it. But there had been ample warning about such longstanding problems as the criteria used to admit students, the rigor of the academics and low graduation rates. The Office of Management and Budget concluded last year that "Gallaudet failed to meet its goals or showed declining

performance in key areas, including the number of students who stay in school, graduate and

either pursue graduate degrees or find jobs upon graduation." The agency called for closer monitoring.

Then came the protests over the selection of Jane K. Fernandes as president; the trustees eventually surrendered abjectly, a move that raised questions about school governance. Protesters claimed victory, and some observers saw virtue in the attention focused on the school. In fact, immense damage was done. Students dropped out and the decline in enrollment accelerated; talented faculty left; a message was sent that behavior not to be tolerated by any academic institution would be rewarded at Gallaudet. Most serious, the question the protests raised remains unanswered: whether Gallaudet can open itself to new kinds of students and new ways of learning in order to stay relevant in a changing world.

President Robert Davila, the trustees' second choice, has the hard task of rallying the campus to improvement in just 18 months. Mr. Davila is a man of accomplishment, with an inspiring life story, and he is correct in his assessment that Gallaudet has too long been isolated from the larger milieu of higher education. He has sought help from some of the country's most respected college administrators and has formed task forces to toughen standards and improve the curriculum. His commitment to Gallaudet is unquestioned. It's troubling, though, that a recent administrative shake-up pushed aside many who supported Ms. Fernandes's vision of a more inclusive Gallaudet.

Even if Gallaudet is able to hang on to its accreditation, more action is needed. It must expand its mission in an era when many deaf children receive cochlear implants and have options beyond sign language. In part thanks to Gallaudet and its alumni, deaf and hard-of-hearing people today have far more opportunity than before, and Gallaudet must adapt to that success.


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