Op-Ed Contributor – New York Times
NEARLY a month of astonishingly passionate protest ended on Sunday when the Gallaudet University board voted to revoke the appointment of Dr. Jane Fernandes as the institution’s next president.
This was a just and commendable decision, which many are likely to misinterpret as an act of unconscionable capitulation to an angry mob.
The protest was never really about deafness — a fact that the news media had trouble grasping. Gallaudet, the nation’s only liberal arts university for the deaf, is no stranger to protest on its campus in Washington. Eighteen years ago, it was the site of the Deaf President Now movement, which resulted in the appointment of the first deaf university president. In that case the issue was clear, the cause easy to champion. It was about deaf civil rights; the victory was everyone’s.
This time the cause is harder to parse, the administration as well as the protesters themselves having offered varying and inconsistent accounts. The strangest was that the protesters objected to the president-designate because she was “not deaf enough.” That this could be a complaint at all is unfathomable to most hearing people, and the university officials who kept stressing the point showed political savvy of the most cynical sort by casting the protesters as a bunch of headstrong deaf students having a temper tantrum.
The fact is that the students — along with many of the faculty, alumni and members of the deaf community — were angry. But this anger was used to discredit the protesters and to deflect attention from a legitimate grievance: that the presidential search process was seriously flawed.
Strong evidence exists for this claim. The inexplicable omission of a few highly qualified candidates from the list of finalists, and the relatively low merits of some of those who did make it onto the list (one didn’t even possess a doctoral degree, a requirement for the job), made it virtually impossible for the position not to go to Dr. Fernandes, the university provost. But she was the subject of two votes of no confidence by the faculty in the past six years, and faculty and students have questioned the manner in which the university appointed her provost. They have asserted that a proper search was never conducted, that Dr. Fernandes received tenure without undergoing the regular seven-year review, and that she has proven an ineffective leader who was unlikely to improve Gallaudet’s shaky academic record.
Still, most of the hearing world can’t understand why the protest was so extreme. Students and faculty at most universities don’t expect to play more than a token role in the selection of a new president. Hunger strikes? Bulldozers razing tent cities? More than a hundred arrests? Two thousand people marching on the Capitol? And in the last few days things were escalating: there were reports of injuries, vandalism and threats against those who didn’t join the protest.
Understanding this requires understanding that Gallaudet is much more than a university. Sometimes called “the deaf mecca,” it functions as the symbolic capitol of a minority culture long disenfranchised. In years past, deaf people were denied the right to inherit land, to bear children, to receive an education. Today, all too often they continue to be denied the right to access information and to speak for themselves.
Gallaudet is supposed to be the one place where deaf people can expect those rights in full. What really lies at the heart of the crisis is the protesters’ refusal to relinquish these basic, hard-won rights. The message was: don’t dismiss us, and don’t obfuscate.
Their cause would have been strengthened by better leadership and a more cogent platform, minus the personal attacks. But one way to look at the events of this month at Gallaudet is as an extraordinary demonstration of commitment, by a community of stakeholders, to maintaining the integrity of their cultural center.
That’s why the decision on Sunday was a courageous one. If the board had insisted on holding fast to its earlier decision, its members might have saved face. Instead, by showing a willingness to examine honestly what brought things to this point, they have hastened the possibility of restoring faith — and they modeled for us an example of leadership far greater than simply upholding one’s authority, no matter the cost.
Leah Hager Cohen is the author of “Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World.”