Gallaudet Board Ousts Fernandes

As Protesters Cheer, Trustees Say Law-Breakers ‘Will Be Held Accountable’

By Susan Kinzie, Nelson Hernandez and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 30, 2006; Page A01

The governing board of Gallaudet University revoked the appointment of the school’s incoming president yesterday, giving in to the demands of students, faculty and others whose protests have kept the nation’s premier school for the deaf in turmoil for the past month.

The board, meeting in a special session at a hotel near Dulles International Airport, voted to “terminate” Jane K. Fernandes’s position as president-designate and said she would not take over for President I. King Jordan as planned Jan. 1. The board issued a statement late yesterday afternoon saying the decision was made with “much regret and pain.”

“We understand the impact of this decision and the important issues that inherently arise when a Board re-examines decisions in the face of an on-going protest,” the statement read. “The Board believes that it is in the best interests of the University to terminate Dr. Fernandes from the incoming President’s position.”

The news set off a wild celebration at Gallaudet’s Northeast Washington campus yesterday afternoon, with protest leaders cheering and embracing one another. Their reaction also showed the depth of bitterness some feel toward Fernandes, as protesters shredded a large effigy of her and then set it on fire.

“I’m elated. I’m so excited right now,” said LaToya Plummer, a leader among the opposition to Fernandes. “The next step is to focus on how we want to improve the search process.”

Said board member Susan Elliott: “Let the healing begin.”

The decision brought an end to the protests. Last night, student leaders said they met with some board members who said that protesters arrested during demonstrations will not automatically be expelled but that there will be consequences. The board of trustees issued a statement saying that although they respected the right to free speech, “individuals who violated the law and Gallaudet University’s Code of Conduct will be held accountable.”

Some board members asked students to make a good-faith effort to clean the campus, open all gates and return to classes. Students said they would do so today.

Gallaudet students, staff and alumni had raised a variety of objections to Fernandes since she was appointed in the spring, saying she was a divisive figure and the process that selected her was unfair.

Fernandes had previously vowed that she would not quit, despite protests that have included takeovers of school buildings and a three-day blockade of the campus that ended with 130 arrests. She issued a statement yesterday, making it clear that the decision to end her appointment was the board’s and not hers.

“It is with deep regret that I heard the Board’s decision to terminate my contract,” Fernandes said. “I love Gallaudet University and I believe I could have made a significant contribution to its future.”

Neither her statement nor the university’s said what Fernandes, 50, who is no longer provost, would do next, or whether she would receive compensation for the loss of her position. Board member Frank Wu, who is chairman of the compensation committee, said earlier this month that rumors of a $2 million buyout clause were untrue. He said it is customary for college professors to have severance provisions in their contract, typically for a year at an amount near their salary.

Gallaudet, founded in 1864, has a student body of about 1,800 students, and its campus also includes a high school and elementary school for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Because of the school’s status, its president is often seen as a national leader in the deaf community — a symbolic importance that makes selecting a president there an even more complicated process than it is on most college campuses.

In 1988, after the university’s board selected a hearing woman as its president, mass protests swept Jordan into office as the school’s first deaf leader. This spring, the selection of Fernandes to succeed Jordan set off a new protest movement that — while its objections were far more complex than the old rallying cry of “Deaf President Now” — reached a similar level of intensity.

Some said there was insufficient diversity among members of the candidate pool, that a white man with a master’s degree advanced further in the process than a black man with a doctorate and that Jordan was overly involved in the search.

Other objections focused on Fernandes, who has long been a controversial figure at Gallaudet. Some objected to the way she was appointed provost by Jordan six years earlier and others said she had alienated too many staff and faculty members in her 11 years at the school. Immediately after the board announced she would be the next president, students walked out of the auditorium.

After a quiet summer, protests resumed this month as the board came to campus for its October meeting.

Student leaders took over an academic building for several days. Then members of the football team joined the protests, and all entrances to the campus were blocked. The campus was shut down until more than 130 protesters were arrested. Faculty voted to ask Fernandes to resign or be removed, and alumni joined the tents dotting the lawn. Last weekend, an estimated 2,000 people marched to the U.S. Capitol.

Before yesterday, Fernandes had insisted that she was the only person to lead the campus at a time such as this. She said the roots of objections against her lay in deaf identity politics: Fernandes is deaf, but she grew up among hearing children and did not learn American Sign Language — used commonly at Gallaudet — until her 20s.

But, as the protests went on, support on the board began to erode.

Yesterday’s meeting brought the conflict to a new turning point. Near the hotel, a group of 250 or so protesters arrived on buses Saturday evening. They held candles along a roadside. On campus, protest leaders were already promising a new blockade at 6 a.m. today if the board did not reject Fernandes.

The 20-member board includes three members of Congress, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) and Rep. Lynn C. Woolsey (D-Calif.), reflecting the fact that a majority of Gallaudet’s funding comes from the federal government.

When the board decided to oust Fernandes, the reaction spread by pager and e-mail through the coalition of parents, alumni, students, staff and others in the U.S. deaf community who had sought it.

On campus, people hugged, leapt in the air and cheered aloud and in sign language. When a student leader held up a large wood-and-cardboard drawing of Fernandes, many in the crowd yelled, “Burn it!” or waved their fingers in the air to say “burning” in sign language.

But as time passed, all protesters wanted to talk about was healing the divisions.

Some on campus, however, said yesterday that the entire episode might leave Gallaudet divided between those who backed Fernandes and those who opposed her. One of Fernandes’s supporters, sociology professor Margaret Vitullo, said that yesterday was a “very, very sad day” for the school.

“The short-term gain may be there,” she said, for those celebrating on campus. “They think they’ve done this wonderful thing for Gallaudet — but they’ve fundamentally weakened the rule of law, and they’ve fundamentally weakened the university.”

Sources close to the board, who asked not to be named because board negotiations are private, said the board will be talking about the role Jordan will have and whether to bring in an interim president. One possible candidate, sources said, is Robert Davila, who served as chief executive for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

Jordan issued a statement yesterday afternoon urging the Gallaudet community to overcome divisions that, in his words, “overtook reason, respect, and civility.”

“We should not look for a resolution to the struggle of recent months in terms of winners and losers,” he said. “If we do, Gallaudet and our students will be the losers.”

Time of Tension

May 1: Gallaudet University’s provost, Jane K. Fernandes, is named president-designate, setting off protests by hundreds of students.

May 4: Fernandes says that she will not resign and that she is caught in the middle of a cultural debate over what it means to be “deaf enough.” The statement angers protesters.

May 8: Gallaudet’s faculty votes a lack of confidence in Fernandes and in the board of trustees’ decision to n ame her president.

May 12: The school year ends.

Oct. 3: Protests resume on campus, with some students and faculty walking out of class, demanding that the presidential search be reopened and that there be no reprisals against protesters.

Oct. 5: Protesters take over the main classroom building, blocking doors.

Oct. 11: Members of the football team join protests, blocking the campus gates, shutting down the school.

Oct. 13: More than 130 students are arrested after a three-day shutdown of the campus.

Oct. 16: Gallaudet’s faculty votes for Fernandes to resign or be removed as incoming president.

Oct. 18: Gallaudet trustees split in their support for Fernandes, with some asking her to resign.

Wednesday: School officials send a front-end loader to clear a blockaded entrance to a campus building. One student suffers a toe injury.

Yesterday: The board of trustees votes to revoke Fernandes’s appointment as the next president of Gallaudet.

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