First step in Gallaudet revolution?

By Kelby Brick
Originally published November 2, 2006
To many at Gallaudet University, the removal of Jane Fernandes as incoming president represented merely the first step in reforming a repressive system that excluded stakeholders from the governing process.

Kelby Brick
The Deaf President Now protests in 1988 installed a deaf person as president, but they did not reform this almost 150-year-old entrenched bureaucracy of paternalism.

Gallaudet’s governing system has been led by a self-perpetuating board that appoints its own replacements with very little external input. University bylaws prevent the board of trustees from receiving any communication or information from the campus community independent from the president’s office.

Moreover, the university’s governing system was set up in an era when deaf people had very little say in how they were to be governed – and were viewed as incompetent.

Such exclusion of stakeholders from the governing process reinforces institutional “audism” – discriminatory attitudes and practices based on the inability to hear. Because of limited interaction with the campus community, board members have not been exposed to its true diversity and thus have made decisions in a vacuum. Only a minority of board members are university alumni, which underscores their limited knowledge of campus concerns.

The campus community became frustrated because it was unable to get the board to address critical issues and hold the administration accountable for numerous failures. Sparked by groups of minority students objecting to the exclusion of a prominent black candidate from an all-white group of finalists, the protest quickly attracted supporters who had their own exposure to a governing system that seemed autocratic and unresponsive.

The protest then morphed into a characteristic revolution underpinned by a long list of grievances: systematic institutional discrimination (including racism and audism), rapidly falling academic achievement (as noted by a federal government report), repeated campus security misconduct, and administrative intimidation and retaliation.

Last May, at the beginning of the protest, a team of three outside mediators was brought in to facilitate communication. The administration agreed to systemwide reforms – for example, in the areas of diversity, communication and accountability – but these were ignored, fueling the eruption last month.

When officials of an autocratic system sense they are losing power, they frequently turn to propaganda, restrictive policies on information and physical coercion to retain power and suppress dissent.

Those outside Gallaudet were confused by what was happening on campus, and this confusion was reinforced by the administration’s implementation of a disingenuous media strategy: branding dissent as terrorism. University officials argued that there should be a “new order of deaf people” and claimed the campus community was afraid of technology – ignoring the fact that this campus revolution was led by many people who, like Ms. Fernandes, grew up reading lips before learning American Sign Language later in life.

The administration sought to claim that protesters were unreasonably charging Ms. Fernandes with not being “deaf enough.” When this was exposed as a red herring, the administration instituted – under the guise of safety – a campuswide policy restricting public assembly and discourse. When this failed to stop the protests, the administration turned to mass arrests of students (known on campus as Black Friday) and other displays of dangerous brute force, such as the bulldozing of students’ overnight shelters without checking first to ensure those structures were vacant.

The removal of Ms. Fernandes, who had been one of the top officials at Gallaudet for the past 11 years, is seen as only the first step. Gallaudet now faces a defining moment. The board needs to move expeditiously to become more inclusive and transparent, while demanding measurable accountability from the university administration. The campus community needs to return to its task of teaching and learning while working with the board in developing the kind of “shared governance” system that has been instituted in so many other colleges and universities.

Perhaps the person most critical to the university’s future will be the outgoing president, who has two months left in his presidency. President I. King Jordan can renounce the propaganda and lead, through example, the process of forgiveness. He can bring together stakeholders to reform the system. His lasting legacy – and to a lesser extent, Gallaudet’s future and viability – will be determined by his conduct and decisions in the next two months.

The outgoing president can determine whether the recent crisis was a revolution for a better Gallaudet – or a rebellion that still needs to be put down, along with the university itself.

Kelby Brick, a deaf attorney and Gallaudet alumnus, is former director for law and advocacy at the National Association of the Deaf and co-author of “Legal Rights: The Guide for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People.” His e-mail is kelbybrick@gmail.com.

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