By DIANA JEAN SCHEMO
Published: October 30, 2006
WASHINGTON, Oct. 29 — Surrendering to months of widening and unrelenting protests by students, faculty, alumni and advocates, the board of trustees of Gallaudet University, the nation’s premier university for the deaf, abandoned its choice of the institution’s next president.
In an announcement Sunday night that followed an all-day emergency meeting of the trustees, convened at a hotel in Virginia far from Gallaudet’s Northeast Washington campus, the board announced “with much regret and pain” that it would terminate the contract of Jane K. Fernandes, the former provost trustees named in May to succeed the outgoing president of 18 years, I. King Jordan. The board said it was acting “in the best interests of the university.”
“Although undoubtedly there will be some members of the community who have differing views on the meaning of this decision, we believe that it is a necessity at this point,” the trustees wrote.
The victory of the protesters at Gallaudet represents a signal moment in the fight over deaf culture. It will almost certainly mean the next president must be seen as firmly committed to nurturing a deaf identity among students and advocating for deaf rights. Though opponents called Dr. Fernandes a poor leader, lacking in charisma, she herself maintained that they did not consider her culturally “deaf enough.”
The battle over Gallaudet’s future erupted at a time of massive change in the deaf world, with technological advances like cochlear implants and more effective hearing aids being felt by many in the forefront of the deaf-rights movement as an assault on deaf culture and deaf identity. The turnaround ends months of protests over the board’s choice that had rippled from Gallaudet to polarize deaf communities across the United States.
It is also the second consecutive time that protests forced the board’s hand in choosing a president. Eighteen years ago, in a struggle that became a watershed for deaf rights, demonstrators succeeded in forcing a reluctant board of trustees to name Gallaudet’s first deaf president in more than 100 years in Dr. Jordan.
This time, protesters locked down the campus for several days and turned the university’s entrance into a tent city of the disaffected. Last week, the protesters had seized overnight an administration building that houses the office of the president. They were forcibly removed the following morning, with at least two students suffering injuries.
Dr. Fernandes, 50, who had insisted that her adversaries give her the chance to lead the university, said in a statement that she learned of the board’s decision “with deep regret.”
“I love Gallaudet University and I believe I could have made a significant contribution to its future,” Dr. Fernandes wrote. “I hope that the Gallaudet community can heal the wounds that have been created. I trust that we all want a stronger, better, more inclusive Gallaudet, where A.S.L. and Deaf culture have been and always will be at the core of academic and community life.”
Demonstrators, who had vowed to shut down the campus Monday in what they called “a day of mourning” if the board did not agree to their demands, were euphoric upon learning that they had unseated Dr. Fernandes. Some had made the 30-mile trip to the hotel where the board met, while others rallied at the campus.
Joshua Toz, a student who attended the campus protest, said in an e-mail message that “students burst into tears of happiness” upon hearing of their victory. “Hands went up and mouths opened and screamed,” he said.
At a ceremony at the football field, Mr. Toz wrote, students burned an effigy of Dr. Fernandes, known on campus as J.K. “We worked hard and finally broke the hold J.K. had on the president-designate’s position. Gallaudet University is now ours,” he wrote.
Ryan Commerson, a graduate student who led the protesters, said he initially had trouble believing that the board had really given in. Leala Holcomb, another protest leader, said that she, too, was shocked.
Deborah Chen Pichler, an assistant professor of linguistics, said she was “guardedly thrilled” that the board backed down. She said her elation was tempered by an awareness that emerged during the protests of how widespread the dissatisfaction was among students and colleagues over a range of issues at the campus, not just the choice of Dr. Fernandes.
Dr. Chen Pichler said that protesters doubted Dr. Fernandes’s commitment to upholding the primacy of American Sign Language on campus, and that the next person selected would have to be strongly committed to reinforcing what is often referred to as Deaf culture — with a capital D — at Gallaudet.
Dr. Chen Pichler said the protests were “always about more than Jane Fernandes, but she personified these bad decisions at Gallaudet that had been made for years and years.”
While the university is open to students from all traditions — those who sign exclusively, who speak and read lips or who sign spoken language — many protesters want the university to ban spoken language in classes and official meetings because it is easier for deaf people to understand American Sign Language.
“The next group chosen for finalists have to be sensitive to that,” Dr. Chen Pichler said.
Dr. Jordan, who had supported Dr. Fernandes to succeed him, said he was “deeply troubled by the divisions among us and by the anger that overtook reason, respect and civility.” His own standing had suffered in the battle over Gallaudet’s next president. Though once cherished as an icon of success in the struggle for deaf rights, he now ends his tenure as president here with a no-confidence vote from his faculty.
He urged unity, and thanked Dr. Fernandes for “her dedication and courage and her standing up for what’s right.”
“Now, we must all put down our weapons of words and seek to restore a sense of community,” he wrote.
But a statement from the board also said that protesters would be held responsible for their actions of recent weeks. While respecting the right to peaceful protest, board members said, “Individuals who violated the law and Gallaudet University’s Code of Conduct will be held accountable.”
Dr. Fernandes had argued that Gallaudet’s survival depended on aggressively recruiting among all deaf students, and in harnessing any available technology to help them advance. While she said American Sign Language would play a crucial role at Gallaudet, she also said, in a recent interview, that she could never envision banning spoken language at Gallaudet. In a faculty vote several weeks ago, 82 percent of the faculty demanded that she step down.