This letter, from my classmate Andrea Shettle, is far more eloquent and wise than I could ever hope to express on my own. On this eve before the Board of Trustees is to meet, please give this letter a thoughtful read, and pass it along to anyone you feel would benefit. -Ken @ BiblioMarket
27 October 2006
As members of the Gallaudet Board of Trustees, each of you individually, and all of you collectively, face a most unenviable choice. No matter how you choose to address the present crisis, there will be those who will praise you and those who will condemn you.
Affirm your choice for Jane Fernandes and some will praise you for not giving in to “mob rule.” But others will condemn you for ignoring the deeply held sentiments of the many members of the community who oppose Fernandes as leader. Reverse your choice, reopen the presidential search process, and some will praise you for validating the rights of Gallaudet faculty, staff, and students to be led by a leader in whom they can believe, chosen through a more meticulous, transparent process in which all members of the Gallaudet community have a stronger voice. But others will condemn you for allowing the “rabble” to weaken and undermine the authority of the Board of Trustees.
You cannot choose the easy path. There is no easy path. You cannot make a choice that will be embraced by all. There is no choice that will be embraced by all. You can only choose that which will be lauded by some and vilified by others. Each of you can only choose that which, in the deepest recesses of your soul, you know to be in the best keeping with your own personal conscience. You can only choose that which you believe, with the last fiber of your being, is the best possible choice for both the present and future of Gallaudet University, and for both the immediate campus community and the wider community that goes far beyond its gates. Then you can debate among yourselves until your likely disparate visions for Gallaudet can be, in the best measure possible, reconciled.
Among your considerations, I would urge this thought: There comes a point in the flowing stream of events when the issue of who was right and who was wrong at the originating fountain of that stream is now moot. Were you, the members of the Board of Trustees, right to choose Jane Fernandes, even knowing that a large portion of both faculty and students clearly did not want her as their leader? Were the protesters right to take action that could lead to weakening the authority of the Board of Trustees? Have the protesters chosen tactics of peaceful resistance in appropriate proportion to the situation at hand? Or have they chosen irresponsibly in not doing enough to control the explosive feelings of a very few of their more passionate, less guided sympathizers? All such questions are moot now. What does matter is this: Where are we now? And where do we need to go from here? And how best can we go there?
Where we are now is a community in crisis. The students, faculty, and staff on campus are the obvious focal point for this crisis, but it encompasses, as well, thousands of alumni; current and former parents; former staff; former faculty; and the wider international community of Deaf, deaf, and hard of hearing people and their loved ones. Hostile, polarized sentiment has escalated on all sides. Rightly or wrongly, whatever the original roots of that sentiment, Jane Fernandes has become the focal point of anger for a large segment of the Gallaudet community—both among those who support her and among those who oppose her.
Where we are now is a community that is more profoundly divided than I have ever seen it in my 17 years of association with Gallaudet. And Jane Fernandes and her perceived leadership style, deservedly or not, has become the fracture line.
Where we need to go from here is a place of healing, to a place where all of us on all sides remember once more what unifies us, and not what divides us. I believe—I know—that we can and will reach that place. If passions on all sides have become so inflamed, then they are inflamed because we all share a love for Gallaudet and want to see happen what we believe is best for the community. We may have different visions, different conceptions, of what that “best” means, but we do share the same love for the same place and the same community: Gallaudet.
The more challenging question is: how do we get there, to that place of healing and reunification? Not only are passions running high, but they also have become deeply entrenched. Some of these passions may have been simmering for many years, under what some perceive as the many harms Fernandes has done to the community during her time as provost or at Pre-College Programs. Some may have been simmering even longer, under what some might perceive as harms done under the administration of I. King Jordan. Other passions have been simmering in the months since the protests first began in May. Again, rightly or wrongly, Fernandes has become the flash point of these passions for supporters and opponents alike.
We can reach that place of unification. But to get there, we have a long, rocky path of healing before us. No long-simmering cauldron of passions can be soothed over with a token “let’s have a candle light vigil for a unified Gallaudet” here and a conflict resolution workshop there. These things have their place, and both may need to be part of the process of healing. But they will not be sufficient alone, or even in combination. The wounds of our community are pervasive enough, and intensive enough, that they will require more than mere passage of time and platitudes before they knit themselves whole.
The healing and reunification of our community will take strong leadership. It will take a leader who is sensitive to the powerful emotions that this protest has stirred up on all sides. It will take a leader who can recognize, and acknowledge, that all sides have things to be justifiably upset about, without alienating any one constituency.
It will take a leader who can help all members of the community accept that all sides have valid reason for much of their anger and hostility—while simultaneously helping all members of the community, whatever their position on Jane Fernandes and the protests, find a common ground that will help them move forward. It will take a leader who will recognize that those who oppose Fernandes likely have felt intimidated into silence, terrified to voice their true opinions, for years under her leadership. And it also will take a leader who will recognize that those who support Fernandes, too, feel intimidated into silence, terrified to voice their true opinions in the present climate. It will take a leader who can create a safe space where all these voices can come out, at last, together, with respect toward those who believe differently.
It will take a leader who can accept and embrace all ways of being—and, as importantly, it will take a leader who can be embraced back by people of all ways of being. Some of these people include, but are not limited to: people with and without cochlear implants or other assistive listening devices; people who adamantly identify as Deaf and people who adamantly identify as deaf, Deaf-blind, Deaf-Blind, deaf-blind, deaf-Blind, hard of hearing, hearing impaired, or hearing; people who grew up at Deaf schools and people who grew up mainstreamed; people who grew up oral, with cued speech, with Signing Exact English, with American Sign Language, with Mexican Sign Language, with any other Signed Language, or a mixture of all the above;people of all races, all ethnic groups, religions (or lack of), genders and gender identities, sexual orientations, and national origins.
I don’t know who that leader is or ought to be. I don’t know if that leader is Deaf, deaf, hard of hearing, a cochlear implant user, a hearing aid user, a person who abhors all devices that “repair” the hearing, someone “not deaf enough”, or even hearing. I don’t know if that leader is white, Black, Asian American, Native American, Latino, Hispanic, Jewish, Catholic, atheist, Muslim, gay,lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, trans-gender, a wheelchair rider, a crutch user, a person with learning disabilities, non-disabled, man, woman, short, tall, bald, or curly-haired.
I only know that leader must be a unifier and not a divider.
And only part of what makes a unifier or a divider is intrinsic to the leader. Part of what makes a unifier or a divider is also in the perceptions of those who would follow. Rightly or wrongly, a large segment of the community perceives Dr. Jane Fernandes as a divider more than a unifier. People of a wide range of identities and audiological statuses have felt alienated by her attempts, and the attempts of the University administration, to paint the protest to the media as a “struggle over Deaf identity” when it clearly is not. People from a wide range of communication and linguistic backgrounds have felt alienated by her attempts, and the attempts of the University administration, to demonize the protesters as “terrorists.”
Among the many letters of support on the GUFSSA web site is a letter from a person who uses a cochlear implant who feels alienated, not embraced, by Dr. Fernandes. And also among the letters is a person who grew up with a background near identical to Dr. Fernandes—with no sign language until adulthood. And she, too, feels alienated, not embraced, by Jane Fernandes.
The time for debating the correctness of the perceptions held by the various segments of the broader Gallaudet community is long past. The fountain of our stream of events is miles behind us. We can only choose the path of our stream from here and now.
Jane Fernandes may be brilliant. She may have the most marvelous vision for the future of Gallaudet. And she does clearly have the support of certain segments of the Gallaudet community. And she has supporters from some beyond that community. But she lacks the support of others, and her base of support has only been eroding. And part of the damage has been done by Fernandes herself through her remarks to the media.
Could Fernandes have succeeded under different circumstances, in a different emotional climate, where embittered feelings toward her perceived management style had never had the chance to become entrenched? We could say Yes. Or No. Or Maybe.
But that question is now moot. She cannot lead in the present climate. She cannot bring us from here, in our place of hostility, toward a place of healing and reunification. At best, she could drive both hostile sentiment and sentiment of terror and intimidation back beneath the surface, where they clearly were during her 11 years on campus. Any “unification” she would create would be superficial. It would become even more deeply entrenched, waiting for another chance to erupt in, perhaps, some manner even uglier than it has now.
The community cannot heal under Fernandes. Her supporters might find joy in her triumph and look to the future with hope. They might even persuade themselves that the community has been healed. But those who oppose her would only return to deeper fear and hostility. Eleven years of fear and hostility does not simply go away. Any apparent reunification under Fernandes would be illusion, with possibly frightening consequences for the future.
Fernandes may be the perfect leader—somewhere else. She might have been the perfect leader for the Gallaudet community—in another time. She is not the right leader for Gallaudet here and now.
I urge either that Dr. Jane Fernandes resign or that she be removed, in order to make way for reopening the presidential search. And I urge that there be no reprisals for the members of the Gallaudet community who took peaceful action in what they sincerely believed to be the best interests of the community. These, as you know, are the official demands of GUFSSA.
In addition to these, in my own personal capacity as a private citizen, I urge that the Board of Trustees look to a new future with a stronger, more equitably shared governance for Gallaudet University, including strengthened accountability toward all its key stakeholders, including faculty, students, alumni, staff, parents,and the broader deaf community. In this, I speak strictly for myself and not for any other group, organization, institute, or entity. I suspect that many in the Gallaudet community might agree with this sentiment, but I do not presume to speak for them or to guess how many there might be.
As you might know, American University recently took steps to significantly increase access to direct communication between the Board of Trustee members and the wider American University community. Members of the wider university community can contact the Board of Trustees at a single central email account. American University also has strengthened the voice of faculty and students on the Board of Trustees itself by allowing them nonvoting positions. They are in the vanguard of a slowly growing number of universities that are creating a newer, more democratic vision for how a university can be run. And I, for one, believe that a university with a stronger system of accountability to its students, faculty, staff, parents, and alumni, will ultimately be a stronger university. It can also be a model to other universities considering similar reforms. At least one opinion piece in the Indiana Daily Student seems to imply that some students at other universities, too, want more of a voice in how the affairs of their university are run.
This does not mean that the Board of Trustees should abdicate its role of authority. It does not mean that it should concede to the least whims and caprice of the university community. It does mean that it needs to evolve a system of accountability that more effectively ensures that the most strongly felt sentiments, and the ideas of the most thoughtful, insightful members of the broader university community, should at least be heard.
The events of the past few weeks show clearly that there are members of the broader Gallaudet community who want, very passionately, for Gallaudet to follow the example of leaders like American University and be, itself, a leader for other universities in turn.
Fernandes, and the way that some have perceived her leadership style, were the trigger for the events of the past few weeks and months. But I think part of what the protesters have been saying is, “We want a voice, and we want to be heard.” It is time the Board of Trustee listened.
The Gallaudet University community did, in fact, have more voice in this presidential selection process than some other university communities have had in theirs. But a large segment of the Gallaudet community is clearly saying that even this was not enough. Not only were their voices not heard but, also, their voices were not even openly recognized or acknowledged until they took drastic action. They also are saying that the process was flawed: if it was not rushed, then it had at least the appearance of being rushed. And if it was fair, then the selection of a white man without a doctorate degree as one of the final three candidates over an African American with a Ph.D. degree had at least the appearance of being unfair. And in a political climate, we must deal not only with realities but, also, with appearances.
The time to move toward a significantly more democratic system of governance for Gallaudet University as a whole—and not just in a single presidential selection process—is now. The time to open sincere dialogue with the community about how this can be done is now. And it must be done before a new, more meticulously done presidential search can begin.
1. Dr. Jane Fernandes should either resign or be removed in order to make way for reopening the presidential search in a more meticulous, transparent, democratic manner. Do not simply choose a new president by fiat. The key point is to reopen the process,and to do that process in a way that will be perceived as legitimate by the whole Gallaudet community.
2. There should be no reprisals for those who peacefully made their sentiments known.
And, in addition to these official GUFSSA demands, I personally add, the governance of Gallaudet University should be reformed to allow for a stronger system of accountability to all its key stakeholders, but particularly faculty and students.
Thank you for your time and attention to these issues. Your task is unenviable. But it must be done. I urge that you do it with wisdom, with compassion, with courage, and with vision.
Andrea Shettle, MSW
Alumna ’92, G ’00
Former Staff Member (1990s)
Former Adjunct Faculty (early 2000s)
[I speak only in my personal capacity as a private citizen and do not represent the opinions of any other group, organization, or entity.]
cc: President I King Jordan
President Select Jane Fernandes
Interim Provost Michael Moore
Gallaudet University Alumni Association
Gallaudet University Faculty, Staff, Students, and Alumni Coalition (GUFSSA)