At Gallaudet, protesters press broader demands

October 31, 2006|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The day after protesters at Gallaudet University, the world's premier university for the deaf, prevailed in their battle to oust the incoming president, they pressed forward with their broader demands, saying that students must have a greater say in the search for a new president and that the next choice should be a more forceful advocate for deaf culture and a strong deaf identity.

"We are looking for a person who's sensitive enough, who has respect for all cultures and for American Sign Language," Noah Beckman, president of the student government, signed through an interpreter. He said the new search process would have to demonstrate "inclusion, transparency and equality."

On a sunny, spring-like afternoon, Beckman and other students packed up tents and sleeping bags that had filled the front lawns in recent weeks. Gone were the signs deriding Jane Fernandes, the former provost who had been named to take over as president Jan. 1, and I. King Jordan, the outgoing president who had supported her.

Fernandes' detractors said she lacked leadership ability and did not embrace the primacy of American Sign Language at Gallaudet and in deaf culture. And even though the panel that selected her included students and members of the faculty, many complained that their opinions had been overlooked and that the process was biased in her favor.

The university has never agreed that the process was not open.

In an e-mail message, the chairman of the Gallaudet board, Brenda Joe Brueggemann, said the board had taken many factors into account in deciding to revoke Fernandes' contract.

"We had to think about safety on the Gallaudet campus," she wrote.

"We had to think of Gallaudet's unique role as an institution of higher education but also as a `center' for the deaf community, nationally and even worldwide," the message continued. "We had to think about the way that the situation clearly was not getting any better. We had to think about the financial and moral impact of the protests, especially as they continued, on the university and its constituents."

Brueggemann said the board had not yet set any parameters for the new search.

The board's decision to drop its original candidate would complicate its next search, said Michael A. Baer, a partner at Isaacson, Miller, an executive search firm for colleges, universities and other public interest nonprofits.

"There are a limited number of people available for them to consider, and it's going to send a cautionary note to individuals who could be candidates," Baer said.

Any future candidates would have to be attuned to the issues emerging in deaf culture, and the sensitivities involved, Baer continued. In addition, the prolonged protest brought to the fore the latent discontent over a number of issues on campus, from the failure of many professors to use American Sign Language - the most accessible means of communication for many deaf people - to dissatisfaction that Gallaudet has not played more of an advocacy role for deaf rights in every area of life.

"The search committee and board's awareness that they need to communicate with the entire campus community, in the long run, may strengthen the campus community," Baer said.

Veterans of presidential searches at colleges and universities around the country, said that in view of Fernandes' ouster, the new search would have to give even greater weight to the views of faculty and students. In recent weeks, 82 percent of the faculty voted for Fernandes to resign or be removed.

Claire Van Ummersen, vice president in charge of the Center for Effective Leadership at the American Council on Education, which represents more than 1,800 colleges, universities and organizations involved in higher education, predicted that Gallaudet would not have trouble finding new candidates for the job.

The university, she said, is in a class by itself, as the world's only liberal arts university for the deaf, and is highly prestigious.

In interviews on campus yesterday, protesters said their victory had reinvigorated the struggle for deaf rights, pointing out that this was the second time deaf students had demanded - and won - a say in determining who would lead their university. Eighteen years ago, students forced the board to abandon its first choice of president and to name Jordan as Gallaudet's first deaf president in more than 100 years.

David Reynolds, an alumnus whose family is deaf three generations back, had driven in from Indianapolis with his 21-year-old twin sons, Jonathan and Justin, to join the protest. A teacher at the Indiana School for the Deaf, Reynolds said the new search must allow all groups to weigh in.

"We need the right visionary person," Reynolds signed. "The whole thing here is don't rush the process. That was the mistake the last time."

Justin Reynolds, a Gallaudet student who was taking a semester off, said this weekend's victory for the protesters signaled the ascent of deaf power.

"From here on out, the world wants to know what we'll do next," he said. "With this unity, what are we capable of?"

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