Volume 53, Issue 12, Page A39
November 10, 2006
A Protest Topples a President
At Gallaudet U., students and alumni who ousted their
appointed leader must now confront new challenges
By ELIZABETH F. FARRELL
The protesters were ready to lock down the campus
again. On October 29, even after three weeks of
demonstrations that included arrests, hunger strikes,
and two takeovers of campus buildings at Gallaudet
University, dozens of students were prepared to
continue their rebellion if the university’s Board of
Trustees decided to stand firm in their appointment of
Jane K. Fernandes as president-designate of the
But the standoff ended at 5:34 that evening when the
trustees sent an e-mail message saying that they had
decided to “terminate” Ms. Fernandes, the same woman
whom, just two weeks earlier, they had described as
the most qualified candidate to lead the nation’s only
liberal-arts university for the deaf.
“Although undoubtedly there will be some members of
the community who have differing views on the meaning
of this decision,” the statement said, “we believe it
is a necessity at this point. … The hope of the
Board of Trustees is for our beloved community to come
together to work for a stronger and better Gallaudet.”
Gallaudet’s leaders made their decision behind closed
— and heavily guarded — doors at a Hyatt hotel in
Dulles, Va., about 30 miles from the university’s
campus. In a hallway there, Bobbie Beth Scoggins,
president of the National Association of the Deaf,
read the news on her BlackBerry, then jumped up and
down as she sprinted out of the lobby. “I have to get
to Gallaudet now!” she signed excitedly.
Almost everyone who cared about Gallaudet rushed to
the campus that night, for there was much to discuss.
Although the announcement gave critics of Ms.
Fernandes the victory they sought, it did not resolve
the underlying causes of their dissatisfaction with
During their sustained and passionate protest, the
demands had been simple and specific: Ms. Fernandes
must step down and the university must not punish
students for their civil disobedience, which included
blockading campus gates. After ousting the would-be
president last week, however, they turned to broader,
more complicated goals.
Students, alumni, and faculty members all say they
want a deaf leader who will seek to build consensus
among the university’s various constituents. They also
think their future president should speak out against
audism — the assumption that hearing is superior to
deafness — and racism, improve the university’s
academic standards, and represent both Gallaudet and
the deaf community with charm and affability.
That’s quite a large order to fill, especially at a
time when people at Gallaudet disagree over the best
way make the campus inclusive of all deaf people while
preserving the university’s unique identity — a debate
that predates the controversy over Ms. Fernandes.
“The problems we face are systemic, and they’re not
going to go away easily,” says one of Gallaudet’s
trustees, who did not want to be identified because of
the sensitivity of the issue. “We’re going to have to
tackle them, and it’s going to be a struggle for us
A Unifying Cause
The intensity of the conflict surprised some observers
in academe, where protests now tend to involve only a
handful of students and fizzle out after a few hours
“I can’t recall another time since Vietnam that
protests led to the closing of a campus,” said
Jonathan Knight, director of the program on academic
freedom and tenure at the American Association of
University Professors. “What was unusual here is not
only how deeply the students became involved in
protesting the selection of a new president, but also
the steps they took to support their cause.”
A strong dislike of Ms. Fernandes’s personality and
management style motivated some protesters. When the
university announced last April that she was one of
the final three candidates for president, students
were quick to post messages on blogs and e-mail lists
recounting their interactions with Ms. Fernandes
during her six years as Gallaudet’s provost.
Some described her as having dismissed their concerns
in private meetings, and said it was not uncommon for
her to interrupt them in midsentence.
After Ms. Fernandes outlined her vision for the
university during a public presentation in the spring,
students described her as “stiff” and “humorless,” and
complained that she had dodged their questions.
Many of those questions, however, have no easy
answers. How can a university become more inclusive to
the widening spectrum of deaf students, some of whom
now have partial hearing because of technological
advancements, like cochlear implants and digital
hearing aids? What, exactly, could Ms. Fernandes do to
combat audism on campus and in society at large? And
what are the best ways to improve race relations at
On most college campuses, students are content to
leave debates over the future direction of a
university and its academic philosophy to faculty
members and administrators. At Gallaudet, however,
many students are deeply invested in their
university’s identity because they believe it reflects
The shared experience of being deaf unified Gallaudet
students despite their diverse backgrounds and
interests. That bond also helped the students garner
tremendous support from alumni and national
deaf-advocacy groups. Throughout the protest, adults —
the kind that wear suits and ties every day —
commingled with the students who had set up tents on
Gallaudet’s campus. Many of them had flown in from
other cities to stand in solidarity with the students.
Some had been Gallaudet students in 1988, when an
earlier generation of student protesters started the
“Deaf President Now” movement on the campus, which
caused another president designate, Elisabeth A.
Zinser, to step down. In her place, Gallaudet’s
trustees appointed I. King Jordan, the first deaf
president, to lead the university.
This fall alumni and deaf leaders passed on tactical
advice to protesters. Brian Riley, who earned his
master’s degree in linguistics at Gallaudet in 1987,
was one of a handful of alumni who volunteered to
publicize the protest. Between May and October, Mr.
Riley often devoted 14 hours a day to the cause. Once
he called local television news crews at 3:30 in the
morning to tell them the students had taken over a
That considerable support network also gave the
protesters thousands of dollars, as well as supplies.
Their huge white tents were wellstocked with snacks,
hot drinks, and meals throughout the three-week
ordeal. And students who camped out each night
received plenty of blankets.
“What helped us go on through the protest, even when
we were so exhausted, was the support we received from
all over the world, and the hope we had,” says Leah
Katz-Hernandez, a sophomore and one of the protest’s
student leaders. “Alumni were great in donating their
time and efforts. … There were people who always
tried to make sure everybody was comfortable and
Picture of a Provost
In recent weeks, protesters called Ms. Fernandes many
names. They even likened her to an evil queen. Yet
they said little about the job she had done during her
six years as Gallaudet’s provost, or about her plans
for the university’s future.
Gallaudet’s trustees, however, had picked Ms.
Fernandes because of her experience at the university
and the detailed and articulate plan she had outlined
for its future. As provost, Ms. Fernandes helped build
Gallaudet’s deaf-studies program, which had been
created in 1994 under the leadership of Mr. Jordan.
She successfully recruited many new faculty members to
In the spring Ms. Fernandes introduced a plan to make
Gallaudet a “visual-centric university,” with an
emphasis on visual learning. She said she would urge
professors to boycott textbook companies that did not
provide captions in their supplemental materials. And
she promised that under her leadership, all written
content on Gallaudet’s Web site would be accompanied
by videos with translations in American Sign Language.
“She was the only one of the candidates who had a
clear vision for the institution,” says one trustee.
“Part of her vision included opening the community to
all forms of deafness, and she consistently raised
academic standards for both faculty and students.”
Yet Ms. Fernandes also offended some students and
faculty members, who often felt she acted without
considering their ideas and concerns. And some
detractors claimed she was out of touch with deaf
culture because she had grown up in an oral
environment and had not learned to sign until she was
Some faculty members who opposed Ms. Fernandes say her
greatest sins were those of omission. In 2003, for
instance, the student government drafted a series of
proposed changes in campus policies in an effort to
improve the learning environment. The student leaders
proposed a requirement that all staff and faculty
members must continually improve their proficiency in
American Sign Language, and that even hearing members
of the faculty and staff must always use sign language
on the campus, even when speaking to other hearing
members in casual conversation.
Though Ms. Fernandes did establish a committee of
students, faculty members, and administrators to
review the proposals and explore ways the university
could enact them, many members complained that because
she failed to take further action, the committee
rarely met and no real changes came about.
Ms. Fernandes, who did not respond to The Chronicle’s
repeated requests for comment, has said previously
that many Gallaudet students and alumni were hostile
to her because they thought she was not “deaf enough.”
Following her appointment last May, some faculty
members were dismayed that the trustees had picked
someone who was widely unpopular. In a meeting on
October 16, 138 of 168 faculty members who attended
gave Ms. Fernandes a vote of no confidence.
At least some of that opposition was sewn into the
past. When Ms. Fernandes became Gallaudet’s provost
six years ago, the faculty gave her a vote of no
confidence. Their objection was that Mr. Jordan, the
president, had appointed her without consulting them,
though he had sought their advice about previous
appointments. So began the perception that Ms.
Fernandes was too chummy with Mr. Jordan.
Since then, Mr. Jordan has publicly said he erred in
making the unilateral appointment.
“I think that marked the downward spiral of relations
between the faculty and the trustees,” says Mark S.
Weinberg, chairman of Gallaudet’s faculty senate. “We
were incensed that the board showed no concerns for
the violation of due process and that they were highly
deferential to Dr. Jordan and his decisions.”
The ‘Idol’ in the Room
Although faculty members had their differences with
Mr. Jordan, he has long been admired by students,
alumni, and deaf leaders. That changed after Ms.
Fernandes’s appointment this spring.
Those frustrations were evident in the tense hours
leading up to the trustees’ decision last week, when
the lobby at the Hyatt had the feel of a hospital
waiting room. Andy Lange, president of Gallaudet’s
alumni association, and Ms. Scoggins, of the National
Association of the Deaf, huddled on a sofa. At one
point, Ms. Scoggins looked up from her BlackBerry and
began thinking out loud.
“How the heck did we get to this point?” she asked,
then answered her own question. “In many ways, it’s
all of our faults because we put I. King Jordan up as
an idol. When you look at someone [like] that, you
allow many things to happen that shouldn’t. We will
never do that again.”
Some faculty members blame the board for giving Mr.
Jordan what they describe as too much power, but many
students and alumni agree with Ms. Scoggins’s
assessment. Some of the former students and deaf
leaders who helped Mr. Jordan gain his position say
they should have scrutinized him more.
During his 18 years at Gallaudet, Mr. Jordan has
raised the endowment from under $10-million to
$170-million, bringing in more than $100-million in
federal money. He led the transition of Gallaudet from
a college to a university.
Yet the university’s graduation rates have long
hovered around 40 percent, a problem some protesters
say the president should have done more to fix.
On October 16, the faculty also voted no confidence in
Mr. Jordan, who did not respond to The Chronicle’s
request for an interview.
Since announcing their decision last week, the
trustees have said little about plans for their
renewed presidential search, though they expect to
appoint an interim president after Mr. Jordan’s
scheduled departure, in December.
Last week protesters took down their tents and stepped
back into their lives as full-time students. Many were
confident about Gallaudet’s future.
“The level of scrutiny with the next president will be
amazing, and it should be that way,” says Ms.
Katz-Hernandez, one of the student protest leaders.
“Essential issues like audism and racism will
undoubtedly come to the surface, and it’s going to be
challenging. But we will remain vigilant and make sure
the search is fair.”
Students here have learned how to topple a president.
Their next lesson: the difficulty of finding a new one.