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Elected President of Gallaudet University Ousted Amid Protests

The Board of Trustees at Gallaudet University voted Sunday to revoke the contract of incoming president Jane Fernandes, amid protests from students, faculty, and alumni. A reporter discusses the impact of this incident on deaf culture and on higher education.

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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.

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