Fernandes Dec. 17: The protest was about my not being deaf enough

In her most recent interview with her hometown newspaper, Dr. Fernandes yet again plays the ‘not deaf enough’ card, continuing to lie to the media, her family, and most importantly, to herself, about her failure as a LEADER. She has a long history of failure upon failure, and yet, claims that she has been wronged. She is a petulant 50 year old child who has nothing better to do with herself than to continue her media campaign to spread distortions and simple lies to the press, because facing the complex truths of her failed leadership head-on is too painful for her to bear. Fernandes has NO class. She even goes so far as to call herself the ‘Former President of Gallaudet University.’  EXCUSE ME? You were never President, Fernandes, – get over yourself already!  / Ken @ Bibliomarket

Worcester Telegram & Gazette News

Sunday, December 17, 2006

By Katherin Geyer

She’s in, she’s out as Gallaudet president

Worcester native not given chance to lead deaf university


Worcester native Jane Kelleher Fernandes speaks in sign language and talks aloud, giving people two ways to understand what she is saying. (Photo/JILL CONNOR, BU Washington News Service)

To be clear about my own view, I believe that I am deaf, and I am happy to be deaf, and proud to be deaf.
Jane Kelleher Fernandes,

Growing up in the Newton Square neighborhood of Worcester, Jane Kelleher Fernandes played piano, figure skated and went to Midland Street Elementary. But she always did things a little differently. Born deaf to a hearing father and a deaf mother in a time and place where she was not exposed to sign language, Mrs. Fernandes, now 50, communicated solely through spoken English until she was in her 20s. And since she had never met another deaf person outside her family when she was a child, she was never part of a group where she felt she belonged.

In May, Mrs. Fernandes emerged into the national spotlight after her controversial appointment as president of Gallaudet University, the world’s only liberal arts university for the deaf and hard of hearing, located in Washington, D.C.

She said she had a plan to turn the school around and make it more welcoming to all deaf people, including those who have not learned American Sign Language, which is the glue that many deaf leaders claim holds the deaf community together and sets it apart from the hearing world.

“Those who come to Gallaudet are faced with a sink-or-swim mentality — they either fit in or they leave,” she said. But when the Board of Trustees told the school’s 1,800 students that she would replace retiring president I. King Jordan, a student protest erupted. Protesters noted she had been a divisive leader in her six years as provost and, they argued, the presidential search process was flawed.

The detractors were determined to be heard. They marched to Capitol Hill, erected a “tent city” on campus, launched a hunger strike and shut down the school for several days.

As many as 400 participated in the campus protests, according to a university spokesperson. Protesters showed up at her childhood home in Worcester — only to be sent away by the current resident — and knocked on neighbors’ doors, asking questions about her. They then confronted her parents at their home in Cape Cod.

Mrs. Fernandes received threats and heard rumors that a mob would show up in front of her rural Maryland house. With many considering Gallaudet to be the world leader on issues relating to the deaf, many look to the school’s president as “mayor” of the deaf world. All eyes were on Mrs. Fernandes and the debate spread around the globe. On Oct. 29 the Board of Trustees succumbed to the mounting pressure and revoked her appointment as their first deaf female president, saying it was in the best interests of the university. Three board members resigned, including Sen. John S. McCain 3rd, R-Ariz., one of several members of Congress who served on the board. Mr. McCain said in a statement he disagreed with the decision and considered it unfair.

On Dec. 10 the board selected Robert Davila, the former vice president for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, in Rochester, N.Y., to be the school’s interim president until a permanent president is chosen. Visiting her quiet, 10-acre Maryland farm 30 miles east of Washington, one might never guess Mrs. Fernandes is the subject of such contentious debate. Her husband, son and daughter, all hearing, grow blueberries in their backyard, where deer often roam. Her daughter, Erin, 13, plays the saxophone and Sean, 15, plays basketball in the driveway. And she owns two Collies, the same breed of pets she had growing up in Worcester.

In her first face-to-face interview since the board’s decision, Mrs. Fernandes sat down recently with a reporter to discuss what had happened. She appeared to react with little anger to the controversy swirling around her, but expressed disappointment and frustration over how she had been portrayed.

Mrs. Fernandes uses the simultaneous communication of spoken English and sign language, which is unpopular with some in the deaf community. “The protest was about my not being deaf enough,” she said. “That sends a hurtful message to deaf and hard of hearing youth throughout the United States and the world that if they don’t fit a certain mold, they don’t belong at Gallaudet.”

Mrs. Fernandes charged that her strategy for broadening the student base was essential to improving the quality of education at Gallaudet. The academic accreditation of the school is currently under review by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which has publicly expressed concerns about the presidential search process, student recruitment, retention and graduation rates and academic rigor at the school.

Gallaudet receives more than $100 million annually from the federal government and is subject to federal review. A 2005 report from the Office of Management and Budget rated Gallaudet “ineffective” in its performance including “the number of students who stay in school, graduate and either pursue graduate degrees or find jobs upon graduation.” OMB and several other federal agencies are working with Gallaudet to develop a plan to improve performance at the school. Mrs. Fernandes said Gallaudet’s low graduation rates are of serious concern. Of the full-time undergraduate freshmen who entered the school in 1999, only six percent graduated four years later compared to a national average of about 50 percent for private schools. After six years, only 28 percent of them had graduated, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. The average six-year graduation rate for private, non-profit four-year institutions was about 64 percent during the same time period, according to the center’s statistics.

Kevin Carey, research and policy manager at Education Sector, an education think tank in Washington, said that schools like Gallaudet should have a graduation rate of at least 40 percent over a six-year period. He said that although Gallaudet is a unique university, “they could probably do substantially better than 28 percent.” Mr. Carey said graduation rates are usually tied to the level of preparation students have when they enter the school. Faculty Senate Chair Mark Weinberg told The Washington Post that Gallaudet is so “desperate” for students that “they’ll go out and yank people off the street who don’t have the skills or who are not ready for the college experience.”

“This raises questions about the role and purpose of a private university receiving a large amount of support from the federal government,” Mrs. Fernandes said. “It seems almost anti-American.” “This is exactly why my vision for Gallaudet was so essential,” she said. “Becoming an inclusive deaf university was critical to improving the university’s outcomes.”As a child, Mrs. Fernandes was reserved, but extremely bright, said her father, Richard Kelleher, who served as a Worcester District Court judge. Both he and her mother, Kathleen Cosgrove Kelleher, were born and raised in Worcester. Mrs. Kelleher attended the public schools as a deaf student and at 72 still has not learned sign language. Jane was also sent to public school because her parents “didn’t know any other way,” said her father.

Although Mrs. Fernandes credits her Worcester teachers with being sensitive to her needs, she said it was challenging to succeed in an educational setting that was not set up for her.

“I was always studying, always trying to make up what I missed from the class discussions,” she said.

Mr. Kelleher said that one day in elementary school, she was sharpening her pencil with her back to the class when her teacher told her several times to sit down. Because she could not hear, the other students laughed. She ran home in tears, but her mother sent her back. “She became strong because of that,” he said.

The only girl and the oldest of five children, Mrs. Fernandes has one brother still living in Worcester. Joseph Kelleher, also deaf, works at a post office in the city.

Mrs. Fernandes said she learned to lip-read through a process of trial and error and with the help of a speech pathologist who worked for the Worcester public schools. An honors student, she learned English, French and Latin at Doherty High School, now Doherty Memorial High School, before ever knowing that a sign language existed. And although she couldn’t hear the music, she took piano lessons for several years. After receiving her bachelor’s degree from Trinity College in Connecticut, Mrs. Fernandes received her master’s degree and Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of Iowa. That’s where she joined a deaf club and was first introduced, at age 23, to American Sign Language.

She said she absorbed the language and culture of the deaf like a sponge. “That was the first time I saw a large number of deaf people,” she said. “I thought, wow, all of these people are really like me.” She added: “I became a more whole person, a genuine person and developed greater self-confidence.”

She even competed and won the Miss Deaf Iowa contest and represented the state in the Miss Deaf America competition, an event in Baltimore that her parents attended and one of many times that her father said he was incredibly proud of her.

After his daughter’s experiences in Iowa and exposure to the deaf culture, Mr. Kelleher said he saw a change in her. “One day, we were sitting at my house and she told me that her goal in life was to bring us, the hearing people, into the deaf world and bring deaf people into our world.”

After graduating, Mrs. Fernandes worked at Northeastern University in Boston and then Gallaudet for a year as chairwoman of the Sign Communication Department, where she met her husband, James. The two moved to Hawaii, where she served as director of the Hawaii Center for the Deaf and the Blind, a prekindergarten-through-Grade 12 school. She returned to Gallaudet in 1995 as a vice president to direct a center that focuses on innovations in deaf education and set up a cochlear implant education center at the elementary school run by the university to teach sign language to children with implants. In 2000, she became Gallaudet’s provost.

Her efforts to introduce a center for cochlear implants education were controversial at Gallaudet. “At first, a lot of people resisted that idea,” she said. “But as we’ve seen more deaf adults getting implants and seeing that they are able to harness technology and still not change their identity, the implant center has become more acceptable.”

It was this view of cultural wall breaking that would have taken Gallaudet in a new direction during her presidency, Mrs. Fernandes said. And she said it was also what spurred the fierce nature of the protests, which included students burning an effigy of her in the protest’s final hours.

She said the protesters treat Gallaudet as if it is a deaf club, rather than a deaf university. “I believe that it’s about deep, deep-seated fighting to maintain a strong deaf cultural identity,” she said. Because today’s disability laws require public schools to provide interpreters and note-takers for deaf students, it has become easier for them to become “mainstreamed.” These students often use both spoken English and ASL and may or may not consider themselves to be part of deaf culture. Many attend public universities rather than relying on schools like Gallaudet that specialize in facilitating communication among the deaf.

Mrs. Fernandes said that 95 percent of deaf infants are born to hearing parents, who are eager to get cochlear implants for their children in order to “fix” the problem. “An implant is not something I would choose for myself and would not choose it if I had a deaf baby,” she said. “But it is an option that people have and nothing that I or other people do will stop that from happening.”

Mrs. Fernandes emphasized that despite what some of the students may believe, she is deeply committed to her deaf heritage. “To be clear about my own view, I believe that I am deaf, and I am happy to be deaf, and proud to be deaf. I don’t want to be fixed and I learned that attitude from my mother, who’s deaf also, even though we did not learn sign language. We were not deaf culture members. We are deaf people who believe that deafness happens in families and we live with that.” But there is disagreement in the deaf community on this issue. Some deaf educators say that the respect and preservation of the identity of the deaf community is bound to the use of ASL.

“The concern is that mainstreaming dilutes the use of ASL and what ASL significantly stands for beyond just being ‘a language,’ ” said Judy Fask, director of the Deaf Studies Program at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester.

Mrs. Fernandes’ use of both spoken English and sign language shows she “lacks respect for the use of ASL as the primary language of deaf individuals,” said Dennise Scott and Ying Li, both deaf studies professors at Holy Cross and alumni of Gallaudet, in an e-mail interview.

But Gallaudet has seen its enrollment decline in recent years and Mrs. Fernandes said part of the reason may be the extreme emphasis by some students and faculty on ASL and deaf culture and the exclusion of those who don’t fit that mold.

“(Gallaudet) needs to try to draw in more deaf students of color and more deaf students who have cochlear implants and create a more inclusive deaf university of academic excellence,” she said. The protesters who opposed her cited a number of reasons for why they did not want Mrs. Fernandes to be president of Gallaudet. Some claimed she was “not deaf enough” because of her mainstreamed upbringing, some because she cut funding for their programs. And some of the protesters said she simply wasn’t friendly enough and was too standoffish with the students.

“Dr. Fernandes has created a climate of fear through her style of management, which was clearly intimidation,” said Tara Holcomb, a student leader of the protest. She said Mrs. Fernandes may be able to explain what inclusiveness means, but she was unable to put it into practice.

Ms. Holcomb and others said their protest was not about a fear of cultural change but more about Mrs. Fernandes’ leadership style. “She was known as an exclusive leader who bypassed important university policies to get what she needed,” Ms. Holcomb said. A number of protesters said Mrs. Fernandes had alienated faculty, staff, students and parents. But supporters compare her leadership to that of a parent who makes decisions based on her children’s needs rather than wants.

“She has high expectations of students,” said Shirley Shultz Myers, Honors Program director. “She cares so deeply about students that she is honest with them when their behavior or academic integrity is questionable.”

Leslie Page, the diversity fellow in the president’s office, said Mrs. Fernandes sometimes made unpopular decisions. “In the deaf community, it seems to me that decisions are made based on popularity and that is not how Dr. Fernandes operated,” Ms. Page said.

Jonathan Cetrano, a Gallaudet student from Fitchburg who worked in the provost’s office, said Mrs. Fernandes is misunderstood. “Since she is introverted, some people have a difficult time getting to know her,” he said.

Her husband, James Fernandes, who worked at Gallaudet for 30 years, said during the protests much was said and written about his wife that was not true and he believed it was driven by the students’ fear “that they were somehow going to lose their identity by making Gallaudet a more welcoming place for different kinds of deaf people.”

Mr. Fernandes said he didn’t recognize his wife in the caricature painted by her opponents. “She is a very caring person … she’s very determined. She is a woman of great principle and integrity and poise. She’s not a politician.”

And part of it may have to do with the fact that she is a woman, according to Mrs. Fernandes. “There’s the idea that a woman has to be warm and loving and friendly and if a man did the same thing that I did, they would say he’s very busy with million dollar decisions on his mind.”

Although Mrs. Fernandes has the option of returning to teach at Gallaudet after taking a one-year sabbatical, she hasn’t made any decisions about the future although she said she hopes to remain involved with deaf education. “I will open myself to new possibilities and where I end up remains to be seen.”

Telegram & Gazette intern Katherine Geyer is a participant in Boston University’s Washington Journalism Center program.

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7 thoughts on “Fernandes Dec. 17: The protest was about my not being deaf enough

  1. Jimmsil.. majority of us are more than happy to have Brian’s dedication and 99% of us share same sentiments. For years and years we had been polite, we politely complained, we politely formed thousand committees, we politely made recommendations, we politely asked for action from the administrations, nothing ever worked. Believe me.

    Anne Marie


  2. Brian, Your tactics during the entire protest were in some parts unethical and illegal in some ways. You should go away before it catches up with you. The protest is over. Your hate and anger is well known so go away.


  3. It’s simply her defense mechanism, she has to survive. If she finally stop lying, she will have a major nervous breakdown. Let her keep on lying all she wants, we are already moving on and the public will start to catch up.

    My husband saw a documentary on t.v. discussing about how major media are now starting to struggle to hold power in sharing information. More more people restort to bloggings and internet to learn actual sides of stories. Media manipulation is starting to end.. except in countries with centralized government still control internet and people.

    Anne Marie


  4. This is so sick the way she tries to bad mouth Gallaudet by saying it’s a “deaf club.” That just shows that she never had a clue what Daef culture was all about. She thinks Deaf Culture = Deaf social club.

    What… a… nut….

    Good riddance.


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