The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Racism allegations at Gallaudet U pushed two officials to resign, they say. The school says it’s now committing to permanent changes.

Claudia Gordon is a disability rights advocate who recently left Gallaudet University's Board of Trustees over allegations of racism.
Claudia Gordon is a disability rights advocate who recently left Gallaudet University's Board of Trustees over allegations of racism. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Claudia Gordon said she felt like a token.

A lawyer, disability rights advocate and former Obama administration official, Gordon joined Gallaudet University’s Board of Trustees in 2011, where, for almost a decade, she said she urged her colleagues to commit to upending racism. Meanwhile, she endured microaggression, and watched other Black officials denied promotions and pushed out of leadership positions.

Allegations of racism at the university for the deaf and the hard of hearing, funded largely by the federal government, were swept under the rug, Gordon said. And those who spoke up were discredited.

“I felt like my identity was welcome but my knowledge and input were not,” Gordon said in a statement describing the problems that led to her resignation. She added that university leadership “continually skirted around undertaking the uncomfortable conversations, as well as bold and decisive actions necessary to dismantle the pervasive structural and systemic racism that is so deeply entrenched in this 156-year-old institution.”

Gordon formally left the board in May, right before protests of violence against Black people spilled into the streets and Gallaudet suspended its oldest fraternity after photos surfaced of members wearing prohibited garb that resembled Ku Klux Klan robes. Board member James F.X. Payne, who has alleged similar patterns of discrimination at the university, stepped down as well. Duane Halliburton, who joined the board in 2010, also left this year but did so for personal reasons.

“I am now resigning in protest,” Payne, who is White, said in his resignation letter. “Our board has a bias against action. We regularly self-congratulate ourselves, yet I have seen the same patterns over and over.”

But with the trustees’ departures has come renewed attention to deeply rooted tension on the campus and forced the institution — like others nationwide — to reconsider its relationship with race and privilege. Even so, some remain skeptical of the university’s commitment to change.

“Our students and many others both inside and outside of our Gallaudet community are helping to expose areas where we have not lived up to our core values,” Roberta J. Cordano, the university’s president, said in a statement, “and, rightly so, they are holding me and our university accountable for our actions.”

Gallaudet is “considered the flagship of Deaf education, nationally and globally,” said Isidore Niyongabo, president of National Black Deaf Advocates, an organization that represents Black people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Although private, the university receives more than two-thirds of its operating budget from the government through the Education of the Deaf Act — $134 million in fiscal 2019, the most recent financial data show.

That money funds the school’s mission to provide barrier-free education to the deaf and the hard of hearing, but Black students at a virtual seminar earlier this year said they continually face obstacles, including disrespect from non-Black peers, unfair treatment by campus law enforcement officials and challenges in the classroom — that have contributed to low graduation rates. About 33 percent of Black students graduate from Gallaudet within six years, compared to 59 percent of White students, according to federal education data.

Critics, including Payne and Niyongabo, accused the school of misusing its federal funding by perpetuating a system in which students and employees of color face discrimination. The campus denied the allegation.

“Gallaudet takes its stewardship of federal resources very seriously,” said Bob Weinstock, a spokesman for the campus, adding that the school is “taking meaningful actions to ensure a culture that is free of discrimination of any form.”

Students still say they feel the underinvestment.

“There’s not enough support for Black students,” JC Smith, a junior, said in an interview. “I’m from Mississippi. I came all the way to D.C. to take up classes. When I do take up classes, I feel discrimination.”

Some of the anxiety around racial bias is reflected in “Deaf U,” a Netflix reality show about a group of Gallaudet students. And although the show has been praised as groundbreaking for its portrayal of deaf culture, it has also been criticized for presenting a whitewashed point of view; no women of color are in the main cast.

Weinstock told The Lily that the university was not involved in the show’s production or casting.

The issues are reflected in the school’s leadership, where people of color are underrepresented, current and former board members said. The allegations have led to an audit of the school’s hiring practices, expected to be complete in June 2021, Weinstock said.

“There is no shortage of firsthand and secondhand accounts of preferential treatment, privilege, power and access to opportunities unabashedly doled out to White Deaf members of the community,” Gordon said, “at the expense of cumulative and chronic adverse impact for Deaf Black and other Deaf persons of color.”

But this semester, the school responded to long-standing concerns by announcing more than two dozen goals designed to improve the experiences of students and faculty of color: plans to establish a universitywide racial and social justice committee; develop anti-racism training for students, faculty and staff members; create a resource center for students of color; and increase the share of faculty of color from 37 percent to 40 percent by 2025.

It also committed to law enforcement reforms, including reducing police turnover and increasing the number of officers learning American Sign Language.

“Our anti-racism commitment comes with full acknowledgment of where we have fallen short,” Cordano said in a statement. “Our focus on equity, belonging and anti-racism is now a collective commitment.”

Glenn B. Anderson, who served on the Board of Trustees between 1989 and 2005, returned this year to take over as board chairman. He expressed confidence in the president and said the school’s anti-racism plan addresses concerns raised by members of the community.

“It is a living document that will be continuously updated with ongoing input from our students and other stakeholders as we work together to achieve our goals,” Anderson said in a statement.

Natwar Gandhi, a trustee who threatened earlier this year to leave his position unless the university took steps to upend systemic racism, said recent announcements from the administration made him reconsider.

“There is enough of a structure to hold people accountable,” Gandhi said. “As of now, I don’t have any plans to resign.” He also commended leaders for filling two of the vacant trustees’ seats with women of color.

Halliburton, who resigned after 10 years to pursue other interests, said he also felt reassured by the school’s recent efforts.

The school will establish a task force to monitor fraternities and sororities. Kappa Gamma, the campus’s oldest fraternity, was suspended in June after photos surfaced on social media of members wearing the organization’s blue-hooded ceremonial outfits, which the university had banned (along with other forms of “traditional” Greek apparel) in 2014, after students complained that the robes resembled Ku Klux Klan robes.

Around the same time students were identified wearing the controversial robes, a photo from 1988 surfaced online that showed former members, including a current Gallaudet trustee, performing a gesture in which their right arms were outstretched as in a Nazi salute.

Kappa Gamma International, the fraternity’s alumni organization, said the signal was not a Nazi salute but adapted from the Bellamy salute, a gesture that used to accompany the Pledge of Allegiance but fell out of favor once Nazi Germans adopted the signal. In a Facebook post in July, the group said it did not condone Nazism or white supremacy. “We reject their worldview, and despise those who advocate for these principles,” the post said. “We have never taught hate.”

Kappa Gamma’s chapter on campus decried the gesture. School officials denounced the fraternity’s previous use of the salute but said it was not a factor in the suspension.

Neither Kappa Gamma International nor the former Kappa Gamma president returned requests for comment about the creation of the Greek life task force.

Cordano, after the fraternity was suspended, said the group had “become the face of systemic racism in our community.” Weinstock said the organization remains under disciplinary probation and review.

But the way the university handled Kappa Gamma — which had been accused of racism and anti-Semitism before — is prompting questions about how the school’s new anti-racism plan will be enforced and monitored.

“We have been mindful of the hostile environment the fraternity has created on campus for decades,” Payne said about Kappa Gamma. “I fundamentally feel that the Gallaudet Board of Trustees has lost its way and its moral compass.”

But Cordano said this attempt is different.

“With the death of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the nation’s open reckoning with systemic racism and inequalities has both deepened and accelerated Gallaudet’s ongoing commitment to belonging and equity,” she said. “Improving the lives of all members of our community, but especially those that identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color, remains a deeply held value at Gallaudet.”

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