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Elected President of Gallaudet University Ousted Amid Protests

October 30, 2006 at 3:31 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now, that turmoil at Gallaudet University. Gwen Ifill has our story.

GWEN IFILL: The protests were sustained and raucous, the debates passionate. And by the time Jane Fernandes, who had been slated to become the next president of Gallaudet University, was fired yesterday, this had become more than a simple academic disagreement.

That’s because Gallaudet University, the nation’s only liberal arts university for the deaf, occupies an outsized role in the wider community it serves. Fernandes spent six years as provost before being selected to succeed I. King Jordan when he retires next year.

But students, faculty and alumni rebelled, with protests that began last spring, as well as hunger strikes and mass arrests that ultimately disrupted the campus for a month.

STUDENT PROTESTER (through interpreter): Jane Fernandes has to resign; she cannot lead this university.

GWEN IFILL: Fernandes and her critics differed on what was at issue. Protesters said she was a divisive and ineffective leader, unable to tackle longstanding problems with diversity, declining enrollments, and low graduation rates at the 142-year-old university located in northeast Washington, D.C.

STUDENT PROTESTER (through interpreter): There was not equal inclusion among diversity, people of various diversities and different cultures.

GWEN IFILL: But Fernandes, who has been deaf since birth, said she was a victim of a culture debate over whether she was “deaf enough.” She didn’t learn to use sign language until she was in her 20s. Gallaudet’s President Jordan, himself the first deaf president in the university’s history, supported Fernandes. Protesters turned on Jordan, too.

RYAN COMMERSON, Student Protest Leader (through interpreter): We are here until the end. I mean, this university does not belong to them. It belongs to the deaf community as a whole, both here in the United States and across the globe.

GWEN IFILL: Two weeks ago, the faculty called, for the second time, for Fernandes to resign or be removed. And yesterday, Gallaudet’s governing board agreed, revoking Fernandes’ appointment.

In a statement issued on the school’s Web site, the trustees said they had come to the decision with “much regret and pain,” adding, “The board believes that it is in the best interests of the university to terminate Dr. Fernandes from the incoming president’s position.”

Fernandes also expressed “deep regret,” and said, “I love Gallaudet University, and I believe I could have made a significant contribution to its future.”

The news set off wild celebrations at the university last night.

LATOYA PLUMMER, (through interpreter): I knew we would win, but the question was when. Today, I’m absolutely elated today.

The issues underlying the protests

GWEN IFILL: Gallaudet must now find a way to settle on the qualifications for a new president.

For more on Gallaudet and some of the issues that these protests have brought to light, I'm joined by Elizabeth Farrell, a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education. She's been following this story.

Welcome, Liz.

ELIZABETH FARRELL, Reporter, Chronicle of Higher Education: Thank you very much.

GWEN IFILL: So how much was this about Jane Fernandes and how much was all of this about something else?

ELIZABETH FARRELL: Well, the two were almost inextricably linked when we're looking at the situation. There is a lot of identity politics in the deaf culture right now. There is a lot of different ways that they can communicate, because of the advancement of cochlear implants.

There is a recognition that there needs to be more done to incorporate different types of learning in the university environment and going forward. But at the same time, there is disagreement on how that should be done.

And there wasn't anything specifically in policy that Fernandes said that people specifically raised and objected to. It was more her overall demeanor. I think they felt that this being a particularly critical time for the university that it was very hard for them to see themselves going forward with someone who made a lot of unilateral decisions, didn't really incorporate faculty or students into a lot of decisionmaking.

GWEN IFILL: When you say "critical time for the administration," certainly this wasn't all about her policy. What were the critical issues that were driving this debate?

ELIZABETH FARRELL: Well, one of them is: How much is American Sign Language going to continue to be used? This is a language distinct from written English or spoken English, even. There is also Signed English, which is a literal interpretation of spoken English, but considered more stilted and not as nuanced for expressing ideas.

There are a lot more students now getting cochlear implants, which allow them to hear somewhat. And they're finding that cued speech is very helpful for a lot of these students, because it's a way for them to understand what you or I are saying by using hand signals to express the phonetic sounds that are being made. So with these implants helping students learn so much, they can be a lot more mainstreamed. There's a question of: Will ASL die?

A 'cultural Mecca' for deaf culture

GWEN IFILL: So the students who led this protests mostly were pro-ASL. They felt that sign language is an expression of a specific positive about deaf culture which should be embraced?

ELIZABETH FARRELL: They would not say that specifically.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

ELIZABETH FARRELL: They do feel that it's important. And if you go to any of these protests, you would see them talking exclusively in that, even though some of them are hearing or can read lip and speak. But, because Fernandes comes from a different environment, there was a built-in sort of prejudice to her against that.

GWEN IFILL: Explain for people who are not familiar with Gallaudet what kind of role it plays in the larger non-hearing community or in the hearing community in academe?

ELIZABETH FARRELL: Well, it is the only liberal arts university for the deaf, and that makes it a beacon of sorts. There are so many people that you meet there who have parents and siblings, whole families, who went to Gallaudet.

It is very much a cultural Mecca, as they call it, for the deaf culture. And in that sense, the leader of it becomes sort of an ambassador of the deaf culture to the rest of the world. And in that sense, they want someone who they like, who they think spins them in a positive light, and who's very personable. And because Fernandes doesn't come across that way, it was all the more important to them.

GWEN IFILL: But even though Dr. Jordan, the outgoing president, was considered to be personable, he also was not born deaf. He is not someone who spoke exclusively in American Sign Language. Why didn't they have a problem with him?

ELIZABETH FARRELL: They do have problems with him. He had been around for 18 years, and I think that he had become an icon. When you talk with a lot of the protest leaders, they say, "We don't ever again want to have a president that we build up as an idol like that."

They think that that's a large part of the reason why this situation got so out of control, because this was an appointment that he wanted. And the board had basically given him carte blanche to do whatever he wanted and that there hadn't been enough checks and balances in the system.

The people behind the protests

GWEN IFILL: Now, to look at what we just saw there, this looked like a student protest, that the students rose up. I think there was a day when the football team chained themselves to the gates and wouldn't let people on campus. But was this mostly student led? But we also saw there were faculty; was it faculty input, as well?

ELIZABETH FARRELL: The students were the most visible and controversial part of this, because they were the ones who were out there marching, camping out by all the gates, keeping only one entrance open most of the time.

But the faculty were behind this, as also an extremely strong alumni community at Gallaudet. If you consider any college of that size, the size of about an Amherst College, where people have a very strong identity because each class size is small, they've got that even more strongly because of the deaf identity there.

So you have a lot of alumni; you have a lot of businesspeople in the deaf community who came to their aid; national leaders of the deaf movement. These people were all providing money and moral support and advice behind the scenes, which made this a lot more of a tenacious and well-organized protest than it might have been if the students were just left to their own devices.

GWEN IFILL: If you measure this university by conventional measure, that's to say graduation rates, and enrollment rates, and what happens to people once they graduate, is Gallaudet a successful higher education institution?

ELIZABETH FARRELL: Well, they've had graduation rates hovering around 40 percent for the last, I believe, eight years. And that's a little lower than we're seeing at some big universities.

But overall, there's a crisis in trying to get students in and out of college in even six years in this country. So, by that means, they're a little behind, but it may not be as starkly different as some people might think it would be.

The search for the next president

GWEN IFILL: But I. King Jordan has been a successful fundraiser, I gather?

ELIZABETH FARRELL: Yes. Endowment went from $5 million to $150 million under him, and they've gotten about $100 million in federal funding. So he's been great in that respect, very charismatic.

GWEN IFILL: So this firing just happened last night. Was there discussion under way today about what happens next and whether they can find someone who is deemed suitable by all the parties to take over?

ELIZABETH FARRELL: That's the biggest challenge here, because once you've let all of these different people weigh in and let their influence sway the decision, is there anyone that can possibly meet all their demands?

The next step here is to establish a proper search committee for it. I think there's going to be a lot more transparency in the search this time around. There were six other final candidates, and they were all, I believe, deaf. So there were other people that were considered viable.

Glenn Anderson, who used to be at the university, has come up as a possible name, but it's just so early right now. They spent all yesterday debating over what to do. One of their trustees even told me they considered every other possible option. There have been talks about there possibly being mediation.

So I think right now they're just trying to take it as slowly as possible so that they can avoid any sort of controversy moving forward and reunite everybody.

GWEN IFILL: Well, they've had plenty of that, controversy.

ELIZABETH FARRELL: That's for sure.

GWEN IFILL: Liz Farrell, thank you very much.

ELIZABETH FARRELL: Thank you.