Trustees Seek Student, Faculty Input Before Leadership Search
By Sue Anne Pressley Montes and Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 12, 2006; Page C06
After weeks of chaos at Gallaudet University, the Board of Trustees tried to set a new tone of order and openness yesterday as it invited groups of faculty members, students, alumni and staff to convey the qualities they want in their future leader.
“The board was very attentive,” said Alexander Zernovoj, president of the Gallaudet Graduate Students Association, one of eight students who offered opinions to the trustees. “They seemed to have a genuine interest in what we were saying. We felt very positive. We felt we were heard.”
Gallaudet, the country’s premier university for the deaf, is trying to recover after weeks of protests that forced the ouster of president-designate Jane K. Fernandes. One of the main complaints from students, faculty members and others during the protests was that the board had not consulted them before selecting Fernandes, who was widely criticized for her leadership style. The board’s invitation to the four groups was considered an important development as trustees begin to decide on an interim president and how to restart the presidential search.
The school is in something of a power vacuum now: Longtime President I. King Jordan’s contract ends next month. Fernandes, who had served as provost, is gone, and the interim provost, Michael Moore, has been there only about a month. Last week, two trustees resigned: the chair, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) Although McCain rarely attended board meetings, his decision to leave carried weight because of the importance of Congress to Gallaudet. The private university receives the bulk of its funding from the federal government.
Representatives from the Gallaudet University Alumni Association encouraged the board yesterday to select an interim president quickly. “They’ve got to do it as soon as possible to bring the university towards recovery and bring it back to the level of academic excellence it deserves,” said Kelby Brick, a 1994 graduate and corporate lawyer who lives near Baltimore.
Noah Beckman, president of the student government association, said trustees told the student group that they hope to have an interim president within a few weeks. “It needs to be a person who understands the need of shared governance,” said Beckman, a fourth-year student from Washington Township, N.J.
The board met with each group separately and in private. Trustees would not comment on the proceedings, but the convivial atmosphere was in sharp contrast to the intensity that marked the board meeting two weeks earlier, when Fernandes was ousted. The location of that meeting — a hotel near Dulles International Airport — was kept secret, but campus protesters found out and arrived on buses to give speeches and light candles nearby. After the board voted to terminate Fernandes’s appointment, six board members went to campus to talk with protesters, stepping into a cheering crowd that night.
Since then, the campus has been quiet — and clean. Protesters took down their signs, tents and blockades. Administrators posted a statement about healing on the school Web site.
Zernovoj said he believes healing can happen, although he is worried that the university’s image has been damaged.
“With the interim president, we have got to look into improving communication,” he said.
Mike Kaika, a 1972 graduate, offered the trustees specific guidelines for who he thinks would be best in the role.
“We told them we want someone skilled in American Sign Language,” he said. “We want someone with a diverse background on an academic and an administrative level. A doctoral degree, of course. And we need someone who is preferably an alumnus — there are lots of qualified alumni working out there — and there’s no excuse not to select someone who fits [these] criteria.”