The Real Issues at Gallaudet

As the smoke settles over the Gallaudet University campus, there’s still a lot of steam rising. Now that the Board of Trustees has decided to conduct a new search for a president of that institution, there are still heated emotions and fuming misunderstandings that surround this event that captured the attention of the media and the nation. Given the sturm und drang of the past weeks, it’s possible to make a few observations.
First, and most amazingly to me, the internal events at a small educational institution for the deaf have become a major media event. When I was a small boy with two deaf parents growing up in the Bronx in the 1950’s, I never imagined that the issue of deafness and the problems at a deaf university would ever end up on the front page of The New York Times. But the fact is that deafness and disability in general have gone from a marginal and marginalized experience to one that is central to the fabric of this country. Whether we are arguing about Terri Schiavo’s right to live, the fate of prenatal genetic screening, or sign language at Gallaudet, we are still, in effect, saying that disability and deafness are front and center in our sense of what it means to be human. Whereas in the past to be disabled or deaf was to be abnormal or somewhat inhuman, now we are beginning to define our humanity in a dialogue with our disability.

So the events at Gallaudet were momentous not just because a little university had an internal disagreement but because the issues raised around identity resonated with the general public. One issue that surfaced early was that Jane Fernandes, the candidate chosen by the trustees to be president, was not a “native signer.” What this means is that although Fernandes was born hearing impaired, she didn’t learn sign language until graduate school. Reportedly her signing isn’t fluid and natural — she in effect speaks sign language with a heavy accent and in a way that most deaf users of ASL would feel was inadequate.

For non-deaf people, this issue was perhaps the hardest thing to understand. Why would anyone reject a president for not being “deaf enough” when the person was in fact unable to hear since birth? The difficulty might be easier to understand if you imagined deciding to elect a president of the United States who spoke with a heavy accent and whose command of English was less than perfect. Add to this the fact that one of the new definitions of being deaf isn’t that your ears don’t work — it’s that you belong to a linguistic community the way that Hispanics or the French do. Your community has a literature, a culture, a history, and a language — but the leader of your community doesn’t share fully this cultural palette. Wouldn’t you want someone who was fully of your identity?

This argument, made early on in the anti-Fernandes campaign, was quickly shot down within Gallaudet for a number of reasons — although the press continued to mention it as a factor in the demonstrations. The logic behind the “not Deaf enough” argument was flawed because the “deaf community” or DEAFWORLD, as the ASL sign indicates, is broad enough to include a range of people from hard-of-hearing to profoundly deaf, from those whose parents insisted on oral education to those who attended exclusive schools for the deaf that only used ASL or other sign languages. There are deaf people who use real-time captioning and don’t know any sign language. And of course there are the children of deaf adults (CODA’s) who are native signers but may be hearing. Do we really want to say that some of these people aren’t “deaf enough?” Would we want to exclude various people of color because they weren’t “black enough?”

The argument at Gallaudet quickly moved on from this starting point to other issues around Fernandes. Here the argument stopped being a national issue and became a local one. Many on campus didn’t like the selection process, felt it wasn’t open enough to student and faculty input, and felt that some candidates of color were passed over. Other folks on campus felt Fernandes, who had been in the administration of Gallaudet for a long time, wasn’t a “people person” and had made some unpopular decisions. Now the issue becomes one of bottom-up student/faculty governance versus top-down administrative decision-making. The by-laws of Gallaudet specify that the job of picking the president is solely that of the Board of Trustees, but any institution can only work if the consent of the governed is factored in. What happened at Gallaudet was that there was a loss of confidence in the administration and in Fernandes. And, in turn, both the administration and Fernandes seemed singularly inept in being able to slow down the protests and bringing rational discourse and process to Gallaudet. Instead, they chose, until Sunday, to “stay the course.” Even The Washington Post wrote an editorial in which it advised the Trustees to hold fast.

But “stay the course,” as we’ve learned the hard way, isn’t a particularly good strategy, especially if the course is a disastrous one. There is something to be said for the groundswell democratic process that happens from time to time on campuses and elsewhere. When people take to the streets, when teach-ins and public discussions transform a body of people so that they are united against a particular policy or person, then a kind of muscular democracy is taking shape. Of course, there is always the danger that this kind of improvisational democracy can become mob rule. But the flip side of this is that decisions by the appointed few can become tyranny. Those of us who recall issues from the past like civil rights, the Vietnam War, apartheid, sweat shops, and the World Bank will also remember how effective and important campus protests were.

As it turns out, the trustees were able to read the visible signs of discontent on the part of the students and faculty at Gallaudet, voting to restart the selection process. The good that will come out of this is that this new selection process will have to be more open, sensitive to the issues, and mindful of issues around deaf culture, affirmative action, and democracy in general.

But Gallaudet itself will have to learn from these trying times. First and foremost, I’d advise, as someone interested in the subject but as a non-Gallaudet person, that the issue of “not deaf enough” isn’t going to go away, although it may have dropped out of the Fernandes discussion. New calls for Gallaudet to become an ASL-only campus (now courses are taught in a variety of ways, including orally) smack of a kind of new deaf elitism. While it is more than legitimate to expect students to learn ASL (as it would be for students attending the Lycée Français in the United States to learn French), there must be ways to insure that people whose ASL isn’t up to snuff don’t get snuffed out in the education process. After all, identity is a complex and fragile thing. When you try to make it ironclad and rigid, you end up enforcing the kind of identitarianism that created discriminatory behaviors in the first place. Imagine the case of a person whose parents chose cochlear implants for them at a very early age, but now wants to come to Gallaudet and explore what it means to be deaf. Would there be room for such a person in an ASL-only environment?

The second area to develop at Gallaudet is a more democratic process for decision-making. Most people don’t realize that Gallaudet is one of a small number of universities (the military academies and Howard University being among the others) that receive substantial operating support from the federal government. The reason for this status is complicated, but at base initially was for Gallaudet a kind of paternalism on the part of the nation toward deaf people. While this notion that the nation had to protect and educate deaf people turned out to have great benefits, the legacy of paternalism remains. Perhaps the by-laws of the university reflect this stance, and it would seem a logical and progressive goal to increase the democratic processes at Gallaudet so that the legacy of paternalism can be erased forever.

Finally, it would be only right and just for all sides to bury the hatchet and look toward the future. There is no question that Jane Fernandes was on paper a very viable and possible choice to be president of Gallaudet University — only real events in the real world changed all that. The trustees did their best, the students and faculty did their best, and in the end a solution was reached. There are no bad guys in this story, only passionate positions and a struggle for justice.

Lennard J. Davis is professor of disability and human development at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body (Verso) and the newly re-edited second edition of The Disability Studies Reader (Routledge).



Time to End the Colonialism

Dr. Davis’ article does a fine job of detailing the issues and the process.

What the “non-disabled” community always fails to see is the tradition of paternalistic colonialism that dominates all “special education” in the US — and how this directly impacts students. The idea that the President of the leading Deaf educational institution could not (or would not) speak to students and faculty effectively — and in their own language — is critical. The problem that I see in almost every primary and secondary special education class that I visit — that teachers can rarely understand their students understanding of language, locks humans into a spiral of failure and dependence.

But to me (as illustrated in the conversation about the news story from yesterday here) the “Deaf Enough” is only partially about language — it is largely about the question of whether people with “disabilities” need to be “fixed.” Now, Dr. Davis is right — there aren’t “bad guys” — just well-meaning types who truly feel the world would be easier if we were all the same. But it has taken much of centuries for those of us who are different to break through the “born wrong” assumptions, and many of us prize the uniqueness our differences afford, and don’t want to be “fixed.” Dr. Fernandes, by never deeply learning ASL, fell (intentionally or not) into the “fixer” camp and thus into the role of Colonial administrator — hoping to “turn us all into good Brits-Americans-whatever” and that made her unacceptable.

Ira Socol, Michigan State University, at 8:56 am EST on October 31, 2006



Like Professor Davis, I am a hearing child of two deaf parents. Both were alumni of Gallaudet. I watched recent events unfold at that great university with sadness. Now that the immediate crisis is over, all concerned would be well advised to learn from it. In my opinion, Professor Davis’ description of its lessons was right on target.

Don Langenberg, Chancellor Emeritus at University System of Maryland, at 9:52 am EST on October 31, 2006

The “real” issues at stake here are different for everyone, depending on their experience with the Deaf community and their own ideologies. For example, some parents of deaf children may be sensitive about how their children will succeed in the “real” world and are concerned with categorical definitions of what being Deaf means because they may not be included in such definitions (a hard thing for parents to take when it comes to their own children). Late-deafened adults may be more concerned with making adjustments to their life change and may focus on getting back to a normal life.

As an insider at Gallaudet, as a Deaf woman from a hearing family and grew up in mainstreamed school, as a person who understands that, like Davis says, “identity is a complex and fragile thing”, I don’t see the “not deaf enough” argument as all that important. What matters more for me is that someone who understands the highly complex issues at Gallaudet as well as its highly complex student (staff, and faculty) body can effectively and positively lead us.

Julie Hochgesang, at 1:10 pm EST on October 31, 2006


More than one note in this song

I have followed the Gallaudet events closely in the news, and have discussed them with politically active members of the deaf community. Davis’ article is a fine one in explaining one aspect of the controversy, but I take exception to its singleminded focus, and I warn readers to avoid generalizing or otherwise jumping to conclusions about students’ reasons for opposing Fernandes. To suggest that all GU students are ‘elitist’ and discriminatory is to do an injustice those students who had valid and well-considered reasons for opposing Fernandes’ appointment.

Based on what I have read, GU students had a variety of reasons for the positions they took, and many positions had nothing to do with her abilities. For example, GU students noted other things about Fernandes that they thought would make her less than effective as president, including her lack of a warm and politically savvy personality. That’s not news or a disabilty issue. It happens on campuses across the nation.

From the perspective of organizational change, it strikes me that the real issue is not whether the GU trustees made a poor choice, but that they made it without understanding the expectations of their constituencies. That’s not news either (or a disability issue). It happens on campuses across the U.S., including my own. So let’s stop generalizing about the student protests and start talking about how boards effectively fulfill their obligations as representatives of their constituencies.

Hoosier Prof, at 1:11 pm EST on October 31, 2006


Talent Awaits

Many colleges and universities have a history of challenging presidential searches and tumultuous new presidencies that end before they start or more typically shortly thereafter. Still, good candidates, but different types of candidates, tend to emerge in subsequent searches. The college or university presidency remains a very attractive job for many leaders.

The issues at Gallaudet, as for all presidential successions, are two-fold. First there is the search process itself and it appears that the board used a seasoned search firm and consultant and should in a subsequent search. Mistakes happen in the best of searches.

Second—and even more important especially in this high profile case—is the critical issue of managing the transition. Not all search firms are adept at this very different aspect of making a CEO change. The Gallaudet board desperately needs help in managing this particular transition, while all presidential transitions are important enough that they should be well managed by all boards in every instance, whether using a consultant or not.

KED, College President, at 1:15 pm EST on October 31, 2006


We tried this, didn’t we?

“The difficulty might be easier to understand if you imagined deciding to elect a president of the United States who spoke with a heavy accent and whose command of English was less than perfect.”

Peter, at 2:20 pm EST on October 31, 2006

As a sibling of a Deaf adult who received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Gallaudet U, I have strong opinions about the recent events. I have read this article and the accompanying posts with great interest; however, not much mention was made of a particularly important piece: that the President of any institution, organization, or business should be a LEADER. Clearly, Jane Fernandes is not a leader. Anyone can be a supervisor/manager/president, but to truly lead people, you most possess the ability to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute towards the effectiveness and success of the organization of which they are a member (according to R.J. House). Jane Fernandes cannot be viewed as a leader if she continually ignores the opinions and contributions of others, and if she cannot unite her students and faculty. Countless interactions and events which support these claims have occurred. One need only look towards the video logs (the Deaf alternative to “blogs”) to see that this has been an ongoing issue since last spring.

Perhaps what is most disappointing to me has been the reactions of I. King Jordan, who became President of Gallaudet in the 1980’s after an incredibly tumultuous protest (Deaf President Now), which so ironically appears to be almost an exact replica of recent events. His harsh words and aggressive tactics suggest that he has forgotten who he (and the incoming President) is ultimately responsible to——the students.

I hope that all who have followed these events, or even those who have just barely noticed them, will allow this to be a reminder that the students are the reason why a university exists——and that the choice of a University President should not be based upon politics or favoritism or fundraising abilities, but upon who is best suited to effectively lead the students and faculty to endeavor to better themselves and their community.

Rebekah, at 2:46 pm EST on October 31, 2006


One thought on “The Real Issues at Gallaudet

  1. It came to my attention Dr Davis’ concern that anti-jkf are “elitists” who are afraid of change and want to preserve ASL and Deaf culture and want to keep Gallaudet the way it is now, that they might spurn those whose signing skills are less than perfect, heavy with accent, come from unfamiliar backgrounds, etc.

    I don’t think that is the case. I support and promote for ASL to remain the language of instruction in classrooms at Gallaudet. As a Gallaudet student, I sat in classrooms with students of diverse backgrounds. I had several Deaf professors who taught totally in ASL. These students of diversity manage to pick up – they learn ASL, incorporate and embrace Deaf Culture and their identities – essentially they “catch on.” We did not spurn them – we played big roles in the pivotal points of their lives as deaf persons.

    This brings to this: Leave Gallaudet alone. Gallaudet is unique. It is unique in that the professors teach in ASL (I understand now there are much fewer of them, sadly), Epicenter of Deafness and Culture, folklore, history and indentity. jkf wants to change all that with this so-called “New Order.” Folks, there are thousands other universities out there. Why does it have to be Gallaudet? Surely other universities would embrace and accept her ideologies. Why doesn’t she take her ideas to those place instead of Gallaudet?

    I believe she wanted fame. She wanted credit for changing Gallaudet. She wants go go down in Galludet’s history because of its uniqueness as a university. She would become lost anywhere else. This is that simple.

    Now that she is ousted, it is up to her to grab the opportunity to bring her leadership and ideas to another university where she might blossom and thrive in an environment where she is well received and appreciarted. That won’t happen at Gallaudet. We have spoken.


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