PHILLIPS: Straight ahead, a bridge over troubled waters. A renowned educator comes out of retirement to restore calm at Gallaudet University. Dr. Bob Davila joins us live next in the NEWSROOM.
PHILLIPS: Not all the big changes in Washington this week are in government: a new interim president took over at Gallaudet University after a year of campus protests.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): Gallaudet is the only university specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing students. But it went 124 years without a deaf president. That finally changed in 1988, but not without a fight.
When the Gallaudet board of trustees selected yet another hearing president, that year, students, faculty and alumni revolted and formed a movement called deaf president now. It worked. And Gallaudet soon had its first deaf president, I. King Jordan.
I. KING JORDAN, GALLAUDET PRESIDENT: I am thrilled to accept the invitation on the board of trustees to become the president of Gallaudet University.
PHILLIPS: That 1988 victory has never been forgotten on the Gallaudet campus. And it took on new significance last spring when the time came to choose a successor to Jordan.
The trustees selected Gallaudet’s provost, Jane Fernandes. She was not a popular selection. The reason why is a matter of dispute. Fernandes is deaf, but she had a different background from many members of the Gallaudet community.
JANE FERNANDES, GALLAUDET PRESIDENT-DESIGNATE: I had attended a public school, not a school for the deaf. I had gone to a college other than one that was for deaf people. And I didn’t learn to sign and really met deaf people who did sign until I was 22 years of age. So my emergence into American sign language and culture came later in my life.
PHILLIPS: Some Fernandes supporters claim she simply wasn’t deaf enough for her campus critics. Her critics deny that. They argued that Fernandes was an autocratic provost, insufficiently supportive of students or faculty.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She does not have a relationship with the Gallaudet community, in general. She keeps herself hidden.
PHILLIPS: Whatever the motivation, campus protests began almost immediately. At times, Gallaudet was virtually shut down.
I. KING JORDAN, RETIRING GALLAUDET PRESIDENT: All of the many different things that we do on campus ground to a halt for a week. We can’t allow that to happen.
PHILLIPS: More than 130 protesters were arrested. But in the end, they got their way. In October, the trustees backed down and Fernandes was out.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I knew we would win. But the question was when. Today, I’m absolutely elated it’s today.
PHILLIPS: Gallaudet’s best-known trustee, Senator John McCain, resigned from the board in protest. But the decision to drop Fernandes stood. On December 10th, Dr. Robert Davila, a 1953 Gallaudet graduate, was named interim president. He began work Tuesday.
PHILLIPS: And joining us now from Washington, Gallaudet University interim president Dr. Bob Davila. It’s a pleasure to have you with us, Doctor Davila. And I want to begin by asking you, how do you plan to restore harmony on the Gallaudet campus?
DR. ROBERT DAVILA, GALLAUDET UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT (through translator): When I was appointed president, I promised the community of Gallaudet University that I would work very hard and diligently in order to re-establish the trust to open up the campus community and the conversations and the conversations that happened amongst the community members. Especially for the students that we have and people at large who feel that they can be heard when they’re talking.
And we have to put into place a mechanism and ways that would permit them to get through to the administration as well as to each other. It’s very important that we have this open communication and these dialogues that would then encourage and foster people to work together and establish that trust. And so that’s the main focus right now, and that’s the mission and responsibility for me as well as the university.
PHILLIPS: And there’s been a number of protests among students over the years. Those protests have made history. Their voices have been heard, their signs have been seen. Tell me how you are going to relate to these students? And why you are confident that they are going to understand you, trust you and believe in you?
DAVILA (through translator): I have been student oriented, always been student oriented, as a teacher and administrator. Says I was a classroom teacher for many years. I taught elementary, secondary, college, as well as graduate school. And so my knowledge and commitment to students is widespread.
And I know, and I’ve always wanted to run a program in a way that I wanted when I was a student myself. And so I’m able to bring that passion, that desire towards the work that I do. And I’ve never had a problem communicating or interacting with this campus community, especially students. And I don’t plan on changing that currently.
PHILLIPS: Well, you’ve been quite a trailblazer as a deaf professional. You were assistant secretary in the office of special education under Bush Sr. What challenges did you face in that position in a political position as a deaf man?
DAVILA (through translator): As a deaf man, we dealt with more than 45 million people who experienced different types of disabilities. And they all have special needs. And they all hope that different government agencies are established in place to help them, and they’ve always hoped that they would come up with an answer to certain problems and issues. And so as myself being a spokesperson, it’s my responsibility to make sure that the government agencies are responsive towards people with disabilities.
Of course, there’s always been some disagreements, and there’s been some concerns and anxieties that have come up, and the expectations are very high from government agencies. And it’s my job to make sure that we promote and move along all of our programs to make sure that they’re responsive to the needs of people with disabilities.
And we handled a budget that was in the billions of dollars. And so these are programs bigger than any one college or university experienced. And so that type of management skills and being able to resolve those issues and problems, that’s what I hope to do here at Gallaudet.
PHILLIPS: And you know what’s interesting to me? I hear you say the word disability. Yet you know I’ve grown up with a mom who’s a teacher in deaf education and a grandfather as well. And all my life I’ve heard we don’t want to hear disability, we don’t want to hear handicap — deaf is a culture, and we can do anything that a hearing person can do. And I saw that fire and progressive nature within these student protests.
So could you explain to those that don’t understand the deaf culture, what exactly that means? And how many of you say no, we are not disabled, we are not handicapped?
DAVILA (through translator): Sure. Well, first off, I know that deaf people, we are amongst the groups that are labeled as if we were disabled.
However, within the community of deaf people, we have developed access through the use of sign language, American sign language, where we feel very comfortable using American sign language. We’ve never had a sense of a disability within our own culture, because we’re reminded of that every moment somewhere else.
And so that when we are very comfortable working amongst each other and being able to attend to everything that happens in life in a very comfortable way, as long as communication is accessible, and if communication is always accessible, you would never notice that we have a disability.
And so it’s the reflection that we can do anything but hear, but it’s not that we’re so much disabled, but we have to be able to grasp all of life’s requirements very well. And so I’m very comfortable with doing that.
PHILLIPS: Final question. You’ve always advocated for diversity in education. I know it’s near and dear to your heart. How are you going to expand on that at Gallaudet?
DAVILA (through translator): Pardon me, I missed the question. Could you repeat that? PHILLIPS: Absolutely. You’re an advocate for diversity in education, you’ve always been that way your entire career. How are you going to expand on that at Gallaudet?
DAVILA (through translator): Thank you. That’s a great question. And currently we’re going to be working on that. And before, actually, I took office, the university was working on a diversity plan, which was a part of the strategic plan that is almost in place.
It will be implemented soon. And we are currently in the final phase of our diversity plan. And so we will be focusing and attending to that on how can we approve our mission of diversity and ensuring that we have a diverse community as well as open up opportunities for many people to come to Gallaudet University so that way we can reflect the face of America as Gallaudet.
And so we have to start, and we have been doing that, and we’re working towards that goal. We are on that track. As myself, being a diverse background, coming from one, I am a strong advocate for opening up opportunities for every child whether they’re deaf or hard of hearing, regardless of their background. We have to make sure that we can provide these opportunities to each and every one.
PHILLIPS: Dr. Bob Davila, Gallaudet University president, it’s been a pleasure talking with you. Thanks so much for being with us
DAVILA (through translator): Thank you. And it was my pleasure. Thank you, Kyra. I appreciate the opportunity to be here, to be with you.
PHILLIPS: Thank you.
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