By Sarah Childress
Oct 31, 2006
It’s been a long summer and an even longer fall for Noah Beckman. He’s a senior and student body president at Gallaudet University, the nation’s top school for the deaf, and he’s been leading protests on the Washington DC campus since May. That’s when the board of trustees selected Jane K. Fernandes, currently the provost, as its next president, igniting a firestorm of criticism among students, faculty and alumni. The main complaint was about her leadership. Students said Fernandes didn’t listen to their concerns and wouldn’t address brewing problems with campus racism and audism—discrimination against deaf people. (It’s still a hearing world, so even at Gallaudet not all professors are fluent in American Sign Language, forcing students to rely on interpreters during class.)
Fernandes’ appointment drove a rift between students and the administration. But it also sparked searing resentments among students. Some hoped that Fernandes could bridge the gap between those who use sign language and the growing number of students with cochlear implants and other hearing aids; others feared that those efforts would kill deaf culture. (Fernandes was born deaf, but did not learn to sign until she was 23.)
On Sunday, after weeks of statements to the contrary, the board announced that they were terminating Fernandes’s appointment. One of the more vocal student leaders, Beckman, a senior and business major, had thrown all his energy into protesting, marching on Capitol hill and camping out in a tent—one of about 50 that dotted the campus’s front lawn. Sunday’s decision was an exciting triumph for him and others on his side, but he acknowledges that the healing process has just begun. NEWSWEEK’s Sarah Childress spoke with Beckman, who communicates with American Sign Language, through an interpreter. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: How do you feel about the board’s decision?
Noah Beckman: I know there’s definitely a lot more steps that we need to take and a ways to go, but yeah, I feel good. We’ve been protesting for so long, and it’s been a tough process. My experience with the board at Gallaudet has felt like we haven’t had a voice for so long for so many of the groups—the faculty, the staff, the students and the alumni. I assumed that either they would support the decision [to keep Fernandes as president-elect] or postpone it, but it really was a surprise that they went with that third option.
Students have even taken down the tents they pitched in protest on the front lawn. What’s the mood like?
Most folks were definitely happy about the news. Even on the other side, there was a sense of relief that it was over. It was a stalemate at one point and when people finally got word that it was done, that it was over, they were relieved…. There was a gathering at the front gate and yesterday we had a ribbon cutting, reopening the front gates. It was a symbolic move and several people came to the ceremonies.
The current president, I. King Jordan, has said that the administration will punish those students found to have violated the university code of conduct.
That was one of our major concerns, obviously, in coming together. [I] met with the Dean of Students and the Dean of Affairs. Honestly, one of the things that he said was that there would be only minimal disciplinary measures… He said there might be something in the area of community service, or papers that would have to be written—nothing specific was discussed. But there wouldn’t be any suspensions or expulsions.
The protests were very divisive. Some students even received anonymous, threatening e-mails, cursing them and calling them traitors. Why do you think the situation became so intense?
That sort of behavior is not acceptable to the SBG [Student Body Government] and FSSA [Faculty, Students Staff and Alumni]. But students were really thinking with their emotions, and there were definitely some people who were very angry. We were trying to … keep them involved in the process without the escalation. It was unfortunate. And the SBG will ask folks to write letters of apology for the kind of oppressive behavior and suffering it caused.
Will you write a letter?
Oh, absolutely. I’m guilty of being oppressive and part of that is taking ownership and responsibility. Back in May, when I told a specific group of people that they couldn’t speak in front of the student body [during the initial protests against Fernandes]. It was the black group of students who wanted to speak. …That wasn’t the best decision I’ve ever made, so I’m definitely guilty of that oppression. At the time my thinking was that I didn’t want to have a message that was confusing.
Many students of color objected to the whole selection process, not just the appointment of Fernandes. Did they get much help from the other protesters?
The white students didn’t do anything to support students of color and work together. [The black students] wrote a very powerful letter, and the board didn’t respond, and the SBG didn’t support them in this process. That must’ve been in November or December—awhile back. So with that, I think the racial differences were clear on our campus. I was guilty of that racist behavior, and it’s not something I’m proud of. So, I think the healing process along those lines is critical. I’ve learned so much since May and with this process, to have a higher level of sensitivity to the various groups on campus, to have respect for students of color and increase the sense of unity.
The uproar started when the final three presidential candidates were announced. Gallaudet’s students of color were concerned that a white candidate with only a master’s degree was included, while a well-respected black candidate, Dr. Glenn Anderson, was eliminated. At the time, some white students said Gallaudet wasn’t ready for a black president. Do you think they were right?
I’d like to say no, but there are some groups of people, small groups of people that have that attitude. It exists on our campus, sadly enough. We’re definitely more than happy to see any qualified individual, person of color or not. The most important thing is to have a person right attitude and the right sense of respect for Gallaudet and who we are as deaf students and in the deaf community, more than anything else.
Considering all of the tension they caused, do you regret staging the protests?
It’s tough to say. Going through his process from May to October—it was definitely a real clash, and there was a sense of obstinacy and stubbornness. I think it takes something extreme sometimes to get the attention of those in power and since we haven’t had that sort of voice for such a long time, sometimes it really requires something [extra]. Finally, the board gave us its full attention and was willing to hear our voice. I don’t know if there would have been another way to accomplish what we did. Ultimately, the end result is that we accomplished what we set out to do. I can’t say completely that I don’t have any regrets… because it was such an emotionally charged issue.
Has Jordan addressed the student body?
No. Not yet. His only message to the community was via e-mail.
Is there a candidate that the student body supports?
That kind of talk is just starting at this point. We haven’t had any real discussion. There’s a pool of applicants, and it’s not fair for us to make any preliminary decisions.
Do you think it’s possible to reconcile the campus now?
Absolutely. I’m very optimistic that we can come together. And I would say, being able to start with a fresh start, [now that] people who were part of the system are moving on.
So, everything’s back to normal. You’re back in class.
Yesterday, I actually missed my one class.
Were you out celebrating?
No. [Laughs.] That’s not the reason. I was sort of savoring the beauty of the day.