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Gallaudet's President Has His Say

October 18, 2006

For the last few weeks, Gallaudet University has been torn apart by protests -- led by students but joined by faculty, staff and alumni -- over the selection last spring of Jane K. Fernandes, the provost, to succeed I. King Jordan, the university's president for the last 18 years. Jordan, the first deaf person to preside over the world's most prominent university for the deaf, himself was selected after a 1988 student protest over the hiring of another (hearing) person for president. Jordan had been extremely popular, but Monday, three days after he ordered the arrest of 133 students who had been blocking access to the campus, the university's Faculty Senate voted no confidence in him and the Board of Trustees, and called on Fernandes to resign. On Tuesday, the same day he announced he was calling off this week's planned homecoming activities because of the continued turmoil, he spoke to Inside Higher Ed about the controversy and about Gallaudet's future.

Q: How are you handling the votes from the faculty?

A: Well, obviously, I was very disappointed in the votes and in the numbers. But right now, there’s a lot of emotion. Emotions are running very high and it’s a stressful time on the campus. I would like to think that if the votes took place in a different environment and different circumstances, that the numbers would be very different.

Q: People have not been happy with Dr. Fernandes for some time. The students were unhappy with her and the faculty gave her a vote of no confidence. Perhaps the most shocking votes were the votes of no confidence in you and in the board. Were you surprised at those?

A: I was disappointed, obviously. I’m saddened that there was a vote of no confidence in me and that there was a vote of no confidence in the board. I can tell you about the board, especially, they’re all volunteers. They do this on top of their regular jobs, and they give a lot to the university. So to receive a vote of no confidence is probably painful to them as individuals.

Q: You gave a speech at the National Press Club in which you said that you had made a mistake in appointing Fernandes as provost instead of going through the normal process, with faculty involvement. Is this coming back to haunt you?

A: There’s no question that I should have used a different process when I named her provost. I should have established a search committee and done a search that involved significant faculty involvement. And I’ve told that to faculty again and again. I don’t hesitate to stand up and acknowledge a mistake when I know I’ve made a mistake. I regret that that’s still an issue. That’s six and a half years ago, I think. We’re way beyond that.

Q: I asked Mark Weinberg, chair of the Faculty Senate, "Can we still legitimately call this a 'student' protest?” And he said, "No. This has never been a student protest. It has always involved the Gallaudet community." Do you still see this as a student protest?

A: I see a protest and I see a campus lockdown. And the protest has involved different people and I think that’s fine. I fully support the rights for people to protest and dissent. But what is happening right now with the students is that they are restricting access to the campus. And that is the thing that is clearly damaging to me, damaging to the institution and to the educational opportunities for our children. So I see them as separate.

Q: Are you still going to move forward with the Fernandes appointment?

A: Yes.

Q: Authority requires subordinate people to acknowledge leadership. Do you feel that you still have authority on this campus?

A: Yes. Yes, I do. I do. I do feel that I have authority and I feel that over time, there will be a lot of healing. And I feel that we’ll be stronger when we’re done with this protest and this very intense discussion and these very intense discords.

Q: Dr. Fernandes has already gone through one vote of no confidence. The students voted her the least liked of the three finalists for the position and now the faculty have asked her to resign. Come January, she’ll have the power as president, but do you think she will ever gain the authority?

A: Yes. Yes, I do. I know that you don’t see many of the supporters, but there are many supporters. Some of them speak out and are visible in support of her. Most of them don’t speak out and the reason they don’t speak out is because they’ve been harassed and oppressed. The easiest of example of that is the front gate and only people who support Dr. Fernandes must turn around. They must go in the 6th Street gate.

Q: Do you know T. Alan Hurwitz, dean of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf?

A: Sure. Sure, I know Alan very well.

Q: He wrote an e-mail saying that he believes that the problems here have been caused by the selection process for Dr. Fernandes. He wrote, "I believe that the controversy is based on a flawed selection process, nothing else."

A: So what was an issue is the belief by some of the protesters that the process was flawed. But the board has again and again explained the process. It was very open, transparent, inclusive. The process was not flawed. So the process was a good and fair process.

Q: Robert Hoffmeister, who runs the program in deaf studies at Boston University, hinted that trustees may have chosen Fernandes because you had unduly influenced them. I’ve also heard this from numerous faculty members. Hoffmeister wrote in an e-mail, "This board has backed King Jordan, not the wishes of the DEAFWORLD as exemplified by the revolt by the students, and there’s a dissatisfaction with the choice beyond Gallaudet.”

A: That’s another misperception. I really had nothing to do with the search process from the time the search committee was established until the time that the board deliberated and decided which of the final three candidates should become president. I was told very directly by the board to stay out. They drew a line and communication about the search stopped. It completely stopped. So any influence is nonexistent. There was no influence because I wasn’t to have conversations with the board about that and I didn’t.

Q: Critics often refer to an incident, at the time you announced your retirement, when you called Dr. Fernandes to stand next to you and inadvertently signed the phrase “next president” instead of her actual title “provost.”

A: The word “next” wasn’t in there. I had inadvertently signed, began to sign “president,” when I was saying “provost.” It was a mistake. I was very emotional. I was announcing my resignation and I made a signing mistake. That has become very big, as if I was naming her the next president. Nothing could be further from the truth. I made a simple signing mistake.

Q: Some people have ascribed it to be a Freudian slip. That you tipped your hand.

A: I know. This has gotten great mileage, great support. And I’m a psychologist, and I’ll tell you it wasn’t a Freudian slip. It was just a signing mistake.

Q: You became president during a protest and you’re leaving during a protest. After two decades of service, you’re leaving potentially under a shadow. Everyone thinks about their legacy. How are you assessing this?

A: I think one good way to answer is to look at the difference in the protests. The protest in 1988 was really a wonderful thing. It was a civil rights issue; it was a very positive protest for something very important; it was a protest for an ideal. It wasn’t a protest for me, as an individual. It was a protest for the idea of a deaf president, that a deaf person should lead the university. [Everyone] came together to support that very positive movement. Now instead we have a very negative protest. It’s not about or for anything; it’s opposed to an individual. So instead of pulling together all the different factions of our community, it’s pulling apart. So it’s very painful to me. It would be painful if I wasn’t president, just watching it from a distance. But to be in the middle of it, tears me apart.

Q: LaToya Plummer, a junior here, said that she felt her protesting was an act of justice and that she was proud to have been arrested, but that she is “disgusted" that you let things go so far.

A: There were many attempts at a meaningful dialogue. LaToya was part of a meeting with Dr. Fernandes before the arrests and tried to engage in meaningful dialogue, but [the students showed] no willingness to discuss the very important issues that needed to be discussed. As to the arrests, we exhausted every possible means of negotiation and the campus stayed closed. We asked again and again, “Please open the campus so our elementary school children can go to school, so our high school children can go to school, so that the university can get back to the business of education.” And we were told again and again, “No.” So I reached a point where I needed to ask the D.C. police for help in opening the campus. But the request was for help in opening the campus. People who interfered in that help chose to be arrested. I didn’t “order arrests.” I asked for help to open the campus. Did you see the arrests?

Q: Yes, we reported on it.

A: So people lined up and D.C. police opened the gates and people just blocked the street, and basically challenged the police, and I just can’t imagine how there’s nobility or something to be prideful about in being arrested for that. They’re protesting against something, not for something. If you have an ideal, a mission, a passion for something and somebody is blocking that, then maybe arrest is appropriate. But protesting against a person and being willing to be arrested for that? I don’t really understand.

Q: The president of the National Association for the Deaf feels that the process of the Fernandes selection was flawed. So do the students, the faculty and many in the outside community. They are united against, you, Fernandes and the board. Is there a point when you simply cannot continue?

A: Let me talk about the process again for one minute. Because last week, the board was here and meeting, and we had our first offer to negotiate with the students. And they wrote to the chairman of the board asking that the chairman have an outside investigation of the process of the search. And the board was willing. Of course, they gave the board a deadline that the board couldn’t meet because they weren’t meeting again before that deadline. But the chair did meet with the protesters and say, “Tomorrow I will have a response for you.” But they took that off the table.

We in the administration and the board, everyone has said they are very willing to open a review of the search.

Q: You would appoint an independent investigation of the selection process?

A: Well, that has stopped because no one is talking about that now.

Q: But you would be fine with that?

A: Yes. Absolutely. Independent.

Q: If I could ask my previous question again: With all these groups lined up against you, Fernandes and the board, can you continue?

A: Well, you’re a writer about higher education, so you surely know the process by which a university president is selected. It’s not an election, it’s a process. There’s a committee established and then the committee meets and screens, interviews and recommends. The committee had substantial faculty representation, student representation, staff representation and alumni representation. It was very diverse and inclusive committee. That’s how boards select.

Right now, it’s as if the protesters will determine who the president is. That’s not how things work. No. The board decides who’s the president.

Q: But what about philosophically, politically, not procedurally? At what point do you bow to outside pressure when there is so little support?

A:  I think there’s a lot of support that you don’t see.There’s support from other people in higher education who’ve contacted me. I get e-mails, off and on, all day, every day, from people who are saying, "Hang in, you did the right thing. Time will show that you did the right thing.”

Q: Why are people so passionate on all sides about the choice of president for Gallaudet?

A: Gallaudet is a beacon of hope for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. People who are deaf, who earn university degrees, many earn those degrees here. People who have degrees are very successful in life. They go on to get advanced degrees, they become leaders here and around the world. So  people look at Gallaudet as the leader of the deaf community and the deaf world. So we are both a distinguished university and a leader for the deaf community. That’s not true in most other colleges and universities.

Q: Do you have any last thoughts?

A: I do want to say, when I became president, I said that “deaf people can do anything but hear.” When I travel around and speak, I say that what happened at Gallaudet 18 years ago led to opportunities for people who are deaf, opportunities for people to show what they can do. Right now, Dr. Fernnades has an opportunity, but we’re not giving her a chance. She’s not yet president, so how can people prejudge what she will do as a president?

So I say give her a chance. Let’s see what she can do. I’m very confident that if she’s given a chance, she’ll do fine. But give her a chance.

 

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