Former President’s Legacy May Not Reflect His Tenure
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 8, 2007; B01
When I. King Jordan announced in fall 2005 to a hushed and expectant crowd at Gallaudet University that he would step down as president of the school for the deaf, people gasped. Many burst into tears. Dozens stood in line to thank him or to sign “I love you.”
That was then.
In the past year, he has faced an onslaught of protests over his support for an unpopular would-be successor, including effigies, a faculty no-confidence vote, insults and accusations, some lingering bitterly through the end of his term Dec. 31.
At Gallaudet, for going on two decades, Jordan’s presidency inspired an intensity of feeling hard to imagine on any other campus. He came in as a hero, a charismatic spokesman who told the world, deaf and hearing, how much was attainable.
It has been a painful goodbye.
Jordan has said many times that the school changed his life, starting when he was a young man stricken deaf in a motorcycle accident who found an education, hope and purpose at Gallaudet. How he changed the private university as its leader is still up for debate.
Nearly everyone agrees that he beautified the historic campus in Northeast Washington, raised its profile and strengthened its relations with Congress. But in a wrenching final year, critics harshly questioned everything from race relations to academic integrity to the school’s relevance.
Robert Davila, who began as interim president this week, takes on a troubled university.
Time will tell whether the controversy that flared up over Jordan’s potential successor is soon forgotten or remains to redefine his legacy. One thing is certain: His tenure ended as explosively as it began.
A Powerful Symbol
Jordan rode in on a protest. In 1988, students were outraged that once again a hearing person had been chosen to lead Gallaudet. They demanded a “deaf president now,” shutting down the campus, marching through the streets of Washington — and they won.
Jordan immediately became a powerful symbol for a culture that wanted equal rights, not paternalism. Books such as “The Week the World Heard Gallaudet” were written. He was inundated with media and public speaking requests. And Jordan, who has a politician’s ease in crowds and a ready laugh, was just the person to be spokesman.
“If anybody took advantage of a PR opportunity, it was King,” trustee Ken Levinson said.
Fast forward a generation. The students now at Gallaudet grew up with changes Jordan helped bring about, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. Jordan’s supporters said his improvements on campus include the incorporation of new visually oriented technology into classrooms.
“He managed to hold onto the teaching component and grow the research component,” of Gallaudet, said Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the president of George Washington University. And he spread the word: “He’s so well spoken, so charming. He’s got a message. He’s got a story to tell.”
Trustee Frank Wu has marveled at Jordan’s ability to work a room, to raise money for the endowment and to ensure support from Congress.
Yet Jordan leaves a university whose future, he told the board in a letter obtained by The Washington Post, is uncertain.
It is a turning point in deaf education, as technology makes it easier for deaf and hard-of-hearing students to go to mainstream schools — most do, now, prompting some to question Gallaudet’s relevance. Jordan said the protests over the selection of an unpopular provost as the university’s next president were sparked by people who wanted the school to be a place apart, a center of deaf culture dominated by American Sign Language. “I believe strongly that if we give in now to the ‘absolutists,’ ” Jordan wrote to the board in November, urging a more inclusive view, “that the future of Gallaudet is threatened.”
And the university is under scrutiny: The federal Office of Management and Budget is reevaluating the school after rating its annual $100 million-plus appropriation an ineffective use of federal funding last year. In November, the school’s reaccreditation was delayed. And as the protest went on, some on campus took on issues at Gallaudet that had been under the surface. People questioned chronically low graduation rates, the perception of discrimination based on race or deafness, and, as protests continued to intensify, they increasingly challenged the integrity of the Jordan administration.
When Jane K. Fernandes was named incoming president May 1, students stormed outside, furious. But when Jordan arrived, they gathered around him respectfully, and he soon calmed the crowd.
“Growing up, he was a hero, icon and role model for me,” said Anthony Mowl, a senior then, who had gone to almost every home basketball game with Jordan.
A few days into May, hundreds of people packed into an auditorium to ask two trustees about the presidential search. The questions quickly turned to Jordan; he interviewed finalists, and many said he had pushed his protege into office. When Prof. E. Lynn Jacobowitz said, “I don’t trust King Jordan,” the trustees looked stunned, and the crowd erupted.
“I used to think the world of him,” she signed. “I loved him to death. . . . But now, after what has happened, my trust in him . . . has completely collapsed.”
She told the trustees, “King has been twisting your arms all along.”
From that point on, the protest was not just about Fernandes.
Mowl, like Jacobowitz and many others, found himself fighting his mentor.
Over the summer, Jordan announced strict new rules governing expression on campus and continued to define the protests as a cultural battle led by deaf extremists.
Meanwhile, deaf blogs simmered, with some reluctant to tarnish his image but others attacking “King’s rule” at Gallaudet. In early October, protesters who felt he had stifled their voices and distorted their arguments did something that would have been unthinkable a year earlier: They disrupted a building-naming ceremony honoring Jordan and his family. And they chiseled his name off the wall.
On Oct. 11, a group of students announced their takeover of the school: “We are ousting Dr. Irving King Jordan from the position of president of this university due to the unethical actions carried out by the university administration.”
On Oct. 13, he had more than 130 protesters arrested.
The next morning, Jordan said that he had never faced a more difficult decision but that students were blocking campus entrances and he needed to restore order and safety. The protests in 1988 pulled together all kinds of deaf people for one goal. “Now the exact opposite thing is happening,” he said. “The community is splitting.”
Protesters said the deaf community was united as never before. It was just that this time he was on the other side.
“Dr. Jordan betrayed us,” student leader Ryan Commerson said.
The past year has been extremely tough on Jordan, Levinson said. “I have tremendous respect for him for sticking to what he felt was right, in spite of all the pressure.”
Mowl said, “I don’t see him as perfect anymore, but he still is a role model for me in terms of what I could do as a deaf person, and that’ll never change.”
It is time, Mowl added, for a new generation of deaf leaders to step forward.
Since the board voted at the end of October to terminate Fernandes’s appointment — a decision Jordan told them in no uncertain terms was a mistake — he has given only one interview. For the man who has been the spokesman of the deaf community for the past two decades, it has been a dramatic silence. And an unlikely ending.
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