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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)

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Robert Davila
Interim President, Gallaudet
Thursday, December 14, 2006; 1:00 PM

Robert Davila, the interim president of Gallaudet University, was online Thursday, Dec. 14 at 1 p.m. to discuss his plans for the nation's leading university for the deaf.

A transcript follows.

Davila takes over after the last presidential appointment, Jane K. Fernandes, was forced out by student protests in October. Davila inherits student and alumni pressures common at most schools, as well as issues such as the importance of American Sign Language, as well as challenges to its academic accreditation.

Davila, 74, graduated from Gallaudet in 1953, and went on to be a professor and vice president at the school. He also served as director of the New York School for the Deaf, head of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and an assistant secretary at the Department of Education.

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Robert Davila: Hello. This is Robert Davila, Gallaudet's newly-appointed ninth president. I am pleased to be here participating in this forum.

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College Park, Md.: Congratulations, Dr. Davila. You mentioned in your acceptance speech last Sunday that you want to restore trust on campus. How will you go about doing this?

Robert Davila: Trust is essential if we are going to be working in unison on programs designed to prepare young people for life in the post-college years. People who like and trust each other are more effective and they are willing to assist each other. I have arrived without any agendas of my own other than desiring to do a good job of providing leadership. If I can point the University in the right direction, build trust and establish effective communication and take care that no one group is disenfranchised in our broad effort to fulfill the University's mission, I will have established the groundwork for some really good outcomes. I have never worked anywhere where I was not effective in getting people to work together. I will try to do that here as well.

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Washington, D.C.: In recent years, Gallaudet has had low graduation rates and recently had its accreditation called into question. Why and how has this university found itself in this position?

Robert Davila: Well, I can't answer you without having the data and information that states the reasons for students leaving before graduation. But, certainly, I will be looking into this because it is a concern both within and without the University community. But, until we can verify opinions with facts we need to know why students leave. Many leave for various reasons, i.e., to get married, to take a job, to change residence, because they can't afford it, etc. No one is happy with this, least of all me, but we will be working on it.

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Miami, Fla.: Dr. Davila. Gallaudet seems to be facing so many really serious problems now. Do you really think you can solve them all in 18 months or even 2 years? How will you even begin?

Robert Davila: I agree that the task may appear to be overwhelming, but I did not come here unprepared to engage the community in working cooperatively to remedy existing problems that threaten to keep us from moving forward. I know the strengths of the people here and I have worked with many in the past. I will do everything I can to establish trust and promote cooperation. That will be a good way to start.

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Odenton, Md.: Hi Dr. Davila! What will you do with the cochlear implant program at Gallaudet University? I had not heard much about this program, so I chose another CI center in Maryland to receive the implant and listening rehabilitation programs. Thanks.

Gally '87 Alumni

Robert Davila: When I was in NY working as headmaster of the NY School for the Deaf, we developed an infant/parent program that focused on services to infants with implants. The program grew to over 25 infants at one time before I left after three years. There is a critical need for this kind of program. I am not yet oriented to the program for Gallaudet's cochlear implant center, but I will be sitting down with the staff of the center to discuss ideas. This is a service that the Clerc center can perform at a time when services to children with implants are much in demand.

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Newark, Del.: Hello Dr. Davila...we are very excited about your selection ....as an alum of Gallaudet....what do you see as the expanded role of the alumni? During the protest, the alumni were left aside, considering the fact that over the years the alumni contributed an essential amount of money for Gallaudet....how do you plan to start the healing process with the alumni? Would you consider several alumni (outside Gallaudet) to serve on one of your task forces? Thank you...

Robert Davila: The best advertisements of our alma mater's quality are our alumni, who are all over the country doing things these years that I never dreamed deaf people would be able to do when I was a student. That speaks well for our University. We need the alumni to support the University through recruitment referrals, annual giving, assumption of community service roles, advocacy on behalf of our University and the deaf community, and in doing other things that bring improved quality of life benefits to deaf people everywhere. I plan to visit as many Chapters as my schedule will permit. I served as President of the Metropolitan Chapter in NYC for 11 years back in the '60s. I want an active Chapter network. We will work on that.

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Washington, D.C.: Will you drop charges in the internal judicial process, against the students and faculty that protested against Jane Fernandes?

Robert Davila: I was not privy to this issue and the matter is being dealt with by the Board of Trustees as a matter of policy.

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San Francisco: Congratulations Bob! We appreciate the fact that you came out of retirement for Gallaudet's interim presidency. We thank you for it.

But there are many, many bridges to repair (all the way from Congress, right down to the parents/students).

What is your vision in repairing the public's trust and restoring Gallaudet's original mission of higher education?

Thanks and Good Luck!

Robert Davila: In my opinion, there is no better place to receive a quality education in an accessible environment as is possible at this University. I speak first hand in making this statement since I went to school here and it was my faith and love for the University that convinced me to come back. We have weathered some storms, but the strengths of the University remain in place. We have the world's best experts in education related to hearing loss, experts in ASL-based communication and we provide the types of experiences during the formative college years that no other institution can emulate at the same quality level. Yes, we have some current issues to resolve, but we have the professional expertise and the dedicated spirit among members of our community to bring us pack to our proper place.

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Florida Ave., NE: Sir, I live in the area just outside the gates of GU. In my time there, GU has not once made an effort to reach out to the neighborhood in an attempt to forge a relationship with its neighbors. Do you have any plans to try and engage the community upon your ascendancy? I fear we are at a point of no return if you cannot act to close the divide.

Robert Davila: Thank you for bringing this up. We have a Community Relations Council with which I have not yet met since I am not officially on board until January 1. Nevertheless, I will be meeting with them to discuss their activities and to make suggestions, etc. There are a few board members with an interest in community interactions. So, I will be discussing your concern when I am on board.

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Kettering, Md.: Since many of the current members of the Board of Trustees were "hand picked" by out-going president, I. King Jordan, how soon after you start your job will you revamp the Board and have more Gallaudet alumni on it?

Robert Davila: I am an employee of the University hired by the Board of Trustees. It is important to understand that I do not have the authority to make policy unilaterally. That is the responsibility of the Board. My job is to interpret and implement policies approved by the board. I have no authority to appoint people to the board, much less to remove them.

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Detroit, Mich.: The issue of racism at Gallaudet has been raised frequently. Recruitment enrollment, retention, and graduation of African-American and Hispanic students as well as staffing of minorities remain low. How do you plan to address this issue in terms of preparation before the permanent president is selected?

Robert Davila: I was the first minority student to enroll at Gallaudet way back. We have made some good progress since that time, but, of course, we need to continue to promote college opportunities to young minority students. We can do that best by emphasizing strong transition from secondary programs among high school students who are deaf. Our Clerc Center already provides technical support to schools around the country to help teachers and administrators plan good programs for their deaf students. We need to promote and encourage interest in young people so they can have goals to shoot for. That's how I did it myself. I caught the college bug when I was about 11 or 12 and worked hard to make my goal a reality.

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Swansea, Ill.: Hiya Dr. Davila...wanted to say a big congratulation to you!

My question is, what will you be doing about the TV/Theatre/Film dept at Gallaudet. My understanding with the TV Dept is is literally being reduced and you know this is a growing field in our community. Same goes for Theatre...seems the last several years, the theatre dept has just simply gotten old and redundant. Will there be any changes in this area?

Thank you

Robert Davila: No question but that almost everything being done or developed on our University campus is highly valued because it contributes to positive outcomes for deaf people in a variety of ways. Your question asks me for a very direct and specific course of action. I confess I have not had any opportunity to review programs, assess our resources, discuss priorities with the campus community and report to the board of trustees on proposed actions. I will follow an orderly process to determine budget priories and program emphases.

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Virginia: We need to stop using interpreters at Gallaudet. No need for interpreters if everyone can sign. That will save us a lot of money. No reason for us not to hire deaf janitors, deaf secretaries (thanks to technology).

Robert Davila: I am not sure this can be accomplished that easily. Even though we pride ourselves in the level of communication access we have developed on campus, we still have many non-signers in transit or visiting or doing day-to-day business for external firms on campus. We can't avoid having situations involving non-signers as part of our day-to-day operations. And I am not sure we can ask staff whose jobs are defined by policy to double up as interpreters. We have to look into your suggestion, but I can't see an immediate solution in the manner you suggest.

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Baltimore, MD: Dr. Davila: I understand that the Dept. of Education, OSERS. Office of Special Education Programs has funded four postsecondary education regional centers (PEPNet) to provide outreach and technical assistance to some 2,000 colleges and universities that serve over 30,000 deaf and hard of hearing students. How can Gallaudet develop collaboration and program coordination with the this ED program and share resources and technologies that may interest some of the students to attend GU?

Robert Davila: This is a good point because when I was at NTID, I often wondered why Gallaudet was "not in the league." The University is probably Numero Uno in terms of all the resources and technical capabilities it can export in support of other college programs serving deaf students. I would think the Dept. of Education would be interested in reconfiguring the national Pepnet system to ensure improved technical support to its service recipients. We will be looking into that.

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Seattle: Please get Deaf women to work with you. I know you mention that you want Steve Weiner and William Marshall to work with you, but we need more Deaf women.

Robert Davila: Be assured that I have always worked with both men and women. I was speaking to the two finalists who both happen to be men. If one or both had been women, I would have said the same thing. I was not being specific about the manner in which I will work with Bill and Steve. But, I am specific in saying that I will want to work with everyone and I will certainly include women in this statement. In will also strive for diversity in selecting individuals to carry on critical tasks.

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Washington, D.C.: Good Afternoon, Dr. Davila. As a Gallaudet alumni (C-87,G-00) and as a donor to Gallaudet (I established a Memorial Scholarship in my mother's name-giving close to $18,000), I watched first in horror, then in anger as the IKJ administration canceled homecoming, moved against the GUAA (Gallaudet University Alumni Association) by refusing access to the alumni's data base and threatened other actions that can be only characterized as punitive. What can (will you) do to protect the GUAA from future actions by any administration? Will you, for example, support moving away from the current structure in the relationship between the University and the GUAA? In other words, have the organizations totally separate? I understand that in many colleges and universities the alumni associations are totally apart from the university.

Many thanks.

Robert Davila: I must honestly tell you that I have no specific action plan to resolve your concern at the moment, but also want you to know that I understand the extent to which this concerns our alumni. I do plan to start discussing the present organization and working relationship between the GUAA and the University. I want to come to the ALUMNI forums with an open mind and will listen to what you have to propose.

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Washington, D.C.: Welcome to Gallaudet. I hope you will consider using ASL at Gallaudet. You will be a good role model showing people you can use ASL and don't feel inferior that you need to sign English to show your intelligence.

Robert Davila: Perish the thought! I have never had any qualms about using whatever language any situation confronting me required. Be it Spanish, English or ASL. I am true bilingualist - or maybe I should say trilingualist. I am married to a wonderful woman who comes from an all-deaf family and whose parents attended the North Dakota School for the Deaf and became my "parents" while they were alive because we were so close to each other. No problem with ASL at this end.

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St. Louis, Mo.: Congrats! Bob - Keep up the positiveness!

I wonder how will you reduce audism going on at Gallaudet University?

Thank you!

Robert Davila: It is almost impossible to anticipate remarks or actions that reflect racism or audism. You never know when they will occur and you are are left to only react to such behaviors. What we need to do is head off racism and audism by speaking out as a matter of institutional policy. I have never hesitated to take people to task for demonstrating poor human relations. We should not turn the other cheek, but should take issue when these situations arise. People will get the message believe me!

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San Francisco: Hi Dr. Davila -- If Gallaudet is truly the world's leading educational center for the Deaf, what plans are there to improve educational interpreters, as a whole?

In typical hierarchy of interpreters, ed 'terps are usually at the "low rung"...and many mainstreamed students work with them. I feel that the quality of education is compromised when this happens.

Any thoughts?

Robert Davila: I have always thought that Gallaudet's program to prepare interpreters was one of the best. Quite frankly, I don't know of any program that does better. I appreciate your question but do not feel I can comment because I have not had an opportunity to visit the program and discuss issues of quality and specialization with the program staff.

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Washington, D.C.: I am a Gallaudet student... Congrats. If students protest against you in the near future, what would you do?

Robert Davila: Honestly, I would hope that if there are issues that concern people to the extent that they would put the University on the public block again, that I would be aware of them and that we could have sensible and fruitful discussion. I have every desire to head off divisions by remaining open and accessible but that does not mean that I don't have positions that I will advocate for because I believe that they are appropriate for our University and its populations.

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the worst audism I've seen recently: Is discrimination against hearing people.

Will you help stop that bigotry? Set a cooperative, mature example.

Robert Davila: All bigotry, racism, audism, or whatever other -isms, are not acceptable regardless of whom they are directed to -- be it deaf or hearing persons.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Davila, How will you make Gallaudet University the premiere academic school for the Deaf, since many students and individuals are saying Gallaudet is not a challenging school?

Robert Davila: I honestly don't have first-hand information or evidence that Gallaudet is not a challenging school. We tend to assume this, but we need facts and I do not have them inasmuch as I am not even onboard officially yet. I know for a fact that we do have a corps of outstanding students here. And I have a strong interest in preserving academic rigor. In fact, I will be holding discussions with the faculty about academic rigor.

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Tampa Bay, Fla.: Do you believe that ASL is a language? Do you believe Deafhood? Do you support cochlear implants? What are your positions on the questions above.

Robert Davila: Of course I believe ASL is a language. I followed the pioneering work of Bill Stokoe and his colleagues and I was most interested in what we were doing in linguistics research when in was here for 17 years. The fact that some states, notably California, now accept ASL as a language offering in their foreign language departments is evidence that ASL is a language. Gallaudet is the world's leader in research in this field.

Deafhood is a very interesting concept, but other than reading a few articles on it, I think we need more discussion to really understand the concept.

I have no plans to implant myself, okay? But, I respect and defend the right of anyone and whomever to make decisions about himself or herself. I respect everyone regardless. It is a human right. We demand the same respect in making critical choices about ourselves and our education. That's the way it should be.

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