Signs of change at Gallaudet

At the only US liberal arts university for the deaf, protesters' calls for reform highlight concerns of the deaf community.

Classes at Gallaudet University filled up again last week after months of protests by students, faculty, and alumni finally prompted the Board of Trustees to start over in its search for a campus president.

The spark that set off the protests was the appointment of an unpopular administrator to lead Gallaudet. But because of the singular place it holds as the only liberal arts university for the deaf in the United States, the factors that fanned the demonstrations go much deeper, linking today's activists to a broader movement of social justice for the deaf.

The tent cities are gone; the gates once again open onto pristine lawns. But the campus is still shaken, the mood a mix of hope and melancholy. Students and administrators are keenly aware that there's much to be done to restore trust and find the way forward for the university they all love.

Protests started last May when the board announced that Provost Jane Fernandes would take over when the current president, I. King Jordan, retires Dec. 31. People objected to what they saw as Ms. Fernandes's top-down leadership and lack of charisma; they raised concerns that the board didn't consider student and faculty input. More students joined, angry at how protesters were treated by the administration.

The intensity of the protests – a level not seen on an American campus for more than a decade – speaks to the fact that many see Gallaudet's president as the face of the deaf world. It is one of the few places where, since its founding in 1864, deaf people have been able to access higher education directly, through sign language – even during a historical era when oral teaching was widespread and signing was viewed as subversive. People commonly refer to Gallaudet as a "beacon."

Events here resonate far beyond the 1,900-student campus in Washington. Solidarity protests sprang up from New Mexico to Finland, and various deaf and hard-of-hearing advocacy groups have weighed in.

Similar leadership crisis in 1988

President Jordan was himself appointed in response to student protesters' demands in 1988 for a deaf president – the first in the university's history. But after he called in law enforcement to clear away some protesters in October, many students say they felt betrayed by the very person they have long regarded as a hero.

"In some ways, the [recent] protest is really an extension of what was started in 1988," says Marlon Kuntze, a linguistics scholar at Boston University and a graduate of Gallaudet. At that time, it was enough to have a president who was deaf, but now there may be a growing demand for Gallaudet to make faster progress on research and advocacy to improve deaf people's lives, he says. "Deaf people are trying to define their place in the world.... Deaf children are still shortchanged regularly. Deaf people's rights are still denied."

The issue is not just about who will lead Gallaudet, but how that person will be chosen. Protesters say Fernandes was hand-picked by Mr. Jordan, and that there needs to be more community input.

"The ideal presidential candidate would be selected through a clear and transparent search process ... [and would be] someone who values shared governance," says Leah Katz-Hernandez, an undergraduate who helped organize the protests. "I believe the next presidential search process will be the most scrutinized presidential search process ever." (She was among more than a dozen students, faculty, and administrators interviewed by the Monitor late last week, many of whom communicated through an American Sign Language [ASL] interpreter.)

Students feel so strongly, she and others say, because Gallaudet is like a family, with multiple generations of the same family often attending.

As in the evolution of other social movements, there may be a certain generational assertiveness and succession taking place here, suggests David Garrow, a civil rights scholar and senior fellow at Homerton College, University of Cambridge, England. But because Jordan's role has been so important, he says in a phone interview, "What Gallaudet needs is a next president whom both the protesters and King Jordan can enthusiastically embrace."

One reason people on campus are still "shell shocked," as one professor put it, is that the protests became an occasion for groups to raise long-simmering concerns. Gallaudet spokeswoman Mercy Coogan says some protesters accused the administration and board of exhibiting racism and "audism" – the notion that one is superior based on an ability to hear.

It wasn't until the 1960s and '70s that researchers began labeling ASL as its own complete language, which opened the door for recognition of what many refer to as the Deaf culture (with a capital D) that goes along with signing. A debate over the role of Gallaudet in promoting this culture was brought to the surface in the recent crisis.

Fernandes said she was being opposed because Deaf culture advocates didn't see her as adequately representing the deaf experience. She is deaf, but grew up with oral language and only learned to sign later in life. (About 60 percent of Gallaudet's students were either born deaf or attended deaf schools where they learned to sign as youngsters, Ms. Coogan says. But the majority of the approximately 70,000 students with hearing impairments in the US are in mainstream environments.)

Was it an issue of 'deaf enough'?

A number of protest leaders, as well as students interviewed at random on campus, vigorously deny that Fernandes's appointment was protested because she was not "deaf enough." Most people say their primary objection was Fernandes's leadership style. In a vote this fall, 82 percent of the faculty opposed her appointment, including many who are hearing impaired or deaf but grew up in mainstream schools.

"Dr. Fernandes wanted to deflect from her poor leadership abilities and tried to divert the attention towards identity politics.... How in the world would she be tenured in the [Deaf Studies and ASL] department if she wasn't 'deaf enough'?" writes Gallaudet alumni president Andrew Lange in an e-mail interview.

But some say that Gallaudet needs a leader who will be a strong advocate for ASL as the primary form of communication. "There are plenty of places out there where you can learn as a deaf person in an oral environment – there should be one place where ASL is highly, highly valued," says Deborah Chen Pichler, an assistant professor of linguistics, in a phone interview.

The wider deaf community watches Gallaudet closely, partly because it receives significant federal funding and has a congressional mandate to disseminate curricula and instructional techniques for K-12 schools for the deaf nationwide.

Neither Fernandes, President Jordan, nor the chair of the Board of Trustees were available for an interview. Last Thursday, Jordan e-mailed a statement to the Gallaudet community indicating his disappointment that Fernandes would not become president and urging that "each of us look within ourselves and think of what we can do to help bring about healing."

Students' hurt and anger is part of what needs healing. Student Angelique Bynon joined a hunger strike after the president ordered the tent city by one of the gates to be taken down by force and several students were injured. "He's supposed to be protecting us," she says of Jordan.

For some students who didn't get involved, the "chaos" on campus was depressing. "I thought, 'Should I go home? I don't belong here; I grew up in the hearing world; I don't know the Deaf culture,' " says Susanna Cansino, a transfer student who is hard of hearing. Friends encouraged her to stay. Now she's relieved. "We're starting fresh.... You see people on campus smiling and laughing and hugging."

Students in Lois Bragg's class seemed excited to be back to work even though they had to take a test on "Reading Lolita in Tehran." They signed eagerly to each other and with Ms. Bragg before settling in to write. For Bragg, vice chair of the faculty, the big issue now is board reform. Even if a good president is appointed, he or she could easily be corrupted if surrounded by "yes men," she says.

Next steps: Restore trust and unity

In the coming weeks, meetings and forums are being organized by various groups on campus to continue the discussions. The board is also expected to put forward a transition plan soon.

Meanwhile, the job of interim provost is being filled by Michael Moore, who graduated from Gallaudet and has been a professor here for 24 years. He takes deep sighs as he talks about next steps. "Healing, reunifying, and building trust – those are probably the three key goals." He'll be having a series of meetings with the hopes of getting everyone back "on the same page." One starting point, he says, might be to promote a Gallaudet credo he helped write five years ago. It posits that everyone should be treated with civility and should respect all types of diversity, and that as recipients of a proud heritage, all can contribute to a bright future for Gallaudet.

Ms. Katz-Hernandez says Mr. Moore "has shown willingness to work with different constituencies ... and he has shown an obvious concern for all of us who went through a lot of traumatizing events." She is hopeful that administrators have learned from what she sees as their mistakes. And she wants people outside Gallaudet to realize "we're a warm community, and we want to share it with everybody."

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