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Gallaudet Opposition Grows

May 9, 2006

The Gallaudet University faculty have spoken, and they are not happy with the institution's president-elect, or the way she was chosen.

At a closed meeting Monday, about two-thirds of Gallaudet’s faculty members voted on a series of resolutions regarding Jane Fernandes, the current provost, who on May 1 was named as the next president. And with their votes, the faculty joined students who have been staging constant protests against Fernandes since she was named.

The professors began by voting 96-49 not to support the Board of Trustees’ decision to appoint Fernandes president. They then followed that up with a 77-68 vote asking Fernandes to step down, an 85-58 vote that the presidential search process be re-opened, a 93-47 vote of no confidence in Fernandes as president, and an 80-57 vote of no confidence in the board with regard to the selection process.

“We feel like our voice and our support for the students have been heard,” said M.J. Bienvenu, chair of the department of American Sign Language and deaf studies, when the votes were tallied Monday evening.

Dozens of students, alumni and staff members eagerly waited in the hall of the student center, with one person in the doorway signing to relay messages about vote results to people out in the hall. Each vote against Fernandes was greeted with hugs, claps and the dancing fingers that sign applause. Other students remained in the tent city that was erected at Gallaudet’s main entrance as the protest has dragged on.

Bienvenu added that faculty members continually got conflicting information from administrators about how the search process was proceeding. “We feel that it’s time to do it again with a clean slate,” Bienvenu said.

Opposition to Fernandes comes for different reasons -- including stands she took as provost and a perception that she is not a great public speaker. She may have intensified opposition with some comments she made after being named president.

Last week, Fernandes participated in an online discussion hosted by The Washington Post and at one point said that I. King Jordan, who is retiring as president, "interviewed all three finalists,” which sparked outrage from her detractors, who felt Jordan was inappropriately lobbying for Fernandes.

Two days later, Fernandes told The Post it was a mistake to use the word “interview.” Jordan, who initially said he wanted to be involved in the search process, was told he could not be. He did talk with each of the finalists, but said that the talks were conversations, not formal interviews.

Jeffrey Lewis, a professor of counseling, said that “the students have spoken, the faculty have spoken.”

Though the votes all fell on the same side, dozens of faculty members dissented from the majority opinion.

Margaret Vitullo, chair of sociology, helped write a resolution asking that faculty members support the board’s decision. The resolution language acknowledged differences of opinion, but sought approval of the board’s right to make its own decision despite differences.

“Very important issues have been highlighted by the protest,” Vitullo said. “But there’s no evidence to show there was anything abnormal about the search process.” She added that no confidence votes “will not solve the problem.” The resolution asked that the community come to together to move forward, adding that the “ongoing protest tears at the fabric of the institution.” Vitullo said that “people were afraid to vote for this.”

Fernandes was not available for comment, but Celia May Baldwin, chair of the Board of Trustees, issued a written statement. The trustees “were profoundly disappointed to learn of the vote of no confidence in the board that was passed.… As I have stated numerous times both publicly and privately, the presidential search process was conducted fairly in every regard.”

Some students, including members of the Black Deaf Student Union, were unhappy because Glenn Anderson, former chair of Gallaudet’s Board of Trustees and a black man, was not chosen to be among the three finalists.

Janet Pray, professor of social work, was on the search committee. She wrote in an e-mail that had she “seen any lack of integrity in the process or failure to seek and give serious and equal consideration to a diversity of candidates I would have resigned. Although I cannot speak for my faculty colleagues on the committee, I do believe they would have resigned as well.”

Baldwin’s statement added that “there are many members of the faculty who clearly support the board’s handling of the presidential search … it is clear that there are many in our community who, more than anything, want the protest to conclude peaceably and quickly so that Gallaudet University can move onward.”

The statement did not mention any actions the board might take. Bienvenu said that, if the board does nothing, student and faculty unrest will continue to be actively expressed “through the fall."

Early in the protest, some students and faculty members suggested that Fernandes, who received only 14 percent of the vote in a recent student poll involving her and the other two presidential finalists, may be criticized because she is not a native signer. Fernandes grew up orally deaf, meaning she spoke and did not sign. She now signs fluently, but native signers can still tell that she is not one of them. Concern about that issue seems to have faded away.

Bienvenu emphatically stated that “it’s not about her being deaf enough.”

Many of Fernandes's critics have labeled her a disciplinarian -- an image that was intensified by the expulsion of students who tore down the football goalposts last year. And others say that she simply is not charismatic or trustworthy enough to be the spokesperson for deaf culture that the Gallaudet president necessarily is.

Midday on May 1, less than 24 hours after Fernandes got what she called a “dream job,” she said that she wanted to be seen as a “bridge builder,” and added that she recognized the need to go about repairing damaged relationships. Apparently in response to student outcry that she was aloof in her six years as provost, Fernandes also pointed out that the positions of provost and president are different, and that she understood that a president needs to be much more visible.

With Monday’s faculty vote, the bridge builder will have her work cut out for her.  

 

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