Presidential Search Begins Cautiously
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Two years ago, Gallaudet University picked a new president, and the process brought the school to a standstill. Now its board of trustees is trying again -- carefully.
After a 2006 search that resulted in angry campus protests and more than 100 arrests, the trustees say they have studied the previous mistakes and developed a new approach to what many at the school for the deaf say will be its most important decision ever.
In a packed auditorium on campus this month, board members Jim Macfadden and Frank Wu assured the audience of faculty, students and staff that the search will be characterized by better communication and more inclusiveness.
"We intend to hold many town halls like this, so the decision-making is transparent," Wu told the audience. "We're also taking care to make sure the president's office is not involved in any way."
Some students nodded approvingly. In 2006, many on campus accused longtime president I. King Jordan of controlling the search so that his provost, Jane K. Fernandes, would be chosen.
A furious protest unfolded that spring and then over several weeks in the fall. Students ultimately took over the administration building and, a few days later, barricaded the gates to the school, shutting down the campus until school leaders called in police. More than 100 students were arrested when police removed them from campus entrances.
Fernandes was named incoming president but never took the job. The trustees rescinded her appointment to stop the protests.
But the school's problems weren't over: Accreditors, alarmed by the chaos and deeper problems the protests exposed, put the school on probation. It remained accredited, but the chance of losing that essential stamp of approval at a time when enrollment was faltering put the school at enormous risk.
Now the school is off probation after months in crisis mode, during which its leaders worked to unify the fractured campus, redesign the curriculum, define the school's goals, raise academic standards and increase enrollment. This summer, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education reaffirmed its accreditation. The challenge will be to hire a new president without reigniting old tensions. Many -- if not most -- of the likely candidates already are well known in the deaf community.
"This time, the new board members . . . weren't handpicked by Irving Jordan," said Ryan Commerson, one of the students who led the protest in 2006, "so the process wouldn't have the appearance that the president has his hand in the selection. . . . The university has a new mission, new vision, new strategic plan . . . and its accreditation has been cleared, so I think the entire situation will prove to be productive this time around.
Many in the campus community complained that their concerns were ignored in the 2006 decision. These included questions about a well-qualified African American candidate who was passed over, debate about whether the school's leader should be primarily an academic or a community leader who promoted deaf culture and complaints that the search had been "fixed" from the start.
A task force that studied the mistakes recommended that the board clarify the search committee's role, have a more representative search group, communicate more often and more fully with the campus community, be consistent in the requirements for the job, have an independent organization conduct background checks to prevent bias and protect confidentiality, and ensure that the president and his staff remain removed from the process.
This time, President Robert R. Davila, who will step down at the end of 2009, will not interview finalists, and staff assisting with the search will not come from his office, Macfadden said. The search will take longer, with more time to check candidates' backgrounds, ensure a more diverse pool of applicants and recruit people, he said.
Macfadden and board Chairman Benjamin Soukup will meet with alumni groups and update the campus and alumni frequently on a Web site. Finalists will meet with students, faculty and staff on campus next fall to answer questions.
Soukup, who was greeted as a hero by jubilant protesters on the night that Fernandes's appointment was rescinded, said the current search was designed to involve the campus community every step of the way.
Trustees asked various groups to nominate candidates for the presidential search advisory committee. The committee will narrow the field and propose finalists this spring; the board plans to select the president in October.
"Out of the 11 members, seven are deaf, five are people of color, seven are women," Macfadden said. There are four trustees, a professor from the college and one from the graduate school, one administrator, one alumnus, one person from the elementary and high school on campus and one undergraduate student.
But it includes no graduate students. At last week's town-hall meeting, the audience was half full of students wearing black T-shirts with white silhouettes of hands signing "graduate student."
"I want to make it clear that we are dealing with very angry graduate students at this point," said Matthew Goeb, vice president of the student government. He said he would tell other undergraduate student leaders that "we only have one student representative. I can guarantee," he said, "this will be a lively discussion."
Wu said he would ask trustees to support the graduate students' request that they be allowed to nominate another member for the search committee, something graduate school dean Carol Erting said never would have happened last time.
"People can deal with things they don't like if they think they're getting a fair hearing and getting the truth," she said.
"This is how you do things in a university," she added. "You try to convince people with evidence and a logical argument to change their mind. . . . We're learning how to talk to each other."
Last week, board leaders agreed to choose a graduate student representative from among two candidates and add another member to the search committee. Student Joseph Hill said he was delighted to hear the board had listened and agreed. It showed, he said, that this time things will be different. "The search process will be longer and the community inputs will be welcome," he said.