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Calm at Gallaudet

October 31, 2006

After months of  protest over the selection of Jane K. Fernandes as president, students and faculty at Gallaudet University are getting back to the business of higher education -- with things somewhat resolved since the board on Sunday  terminated her contract Sunday night. A mess of tents, banners and tables still decorated the lawn at the campus’s entrance Monday, but at 5:00 p.m. protesters opened the main gate to outside traffic. They expect to have any mess cleaned up by this morning.

Throughout the protest students had always stated two demands: that Fernandes resign and that there be no reprisals against those who protested. The board agreed to both demands but has said that students who vandalized buildings or destroyed property will face disciplinary action.

Diane Morton, professor of counseling, said that today is the last day to drop classes and that student protesters are now working with faculty to figure out how to make up material they missed. "We will know today how many students will drop classes or have to leave the university," she said.

Still hanging over the university is how to proceed and choose a new president. A Gallaudet spokeswoman, Mercy Coogan, said that she is not sure what will happen in the coming months and that the administration is waiting for the board to make a decision. "Everything is up in the air," she said.

Meanwhile, a consultant who advises universities during executive searches said that any search will now be much harder since the students and faculty have already rejected one choice by the board.

Gallaudet’s board hired Academic Search Consultation Service to manage the search that led to the decision to offer the job to Fernandes. The lead consultant was Patricia T. van der Vorm, who did not respond to calls or an e-mail seeking comment.

"[Van der Vorm] is a spectacularly good search consultant," said a consultant with another firm who did not want to be identified. The consultant added that any future search would be extremely difficult because the protesters, by rejecting a well qualified candidate like Fernandes, had made the decision more of a popularity contest. The consultant also speculated that the board would seem to have a poor relationship with the faculty, since the trustees did not seem to understand just how much professors dislike Fernandes. "It will be interesting to see how they deal with this," added the consultant.

But John Thelin, a professor of educational policy studies at the University of Kentucky, said that "what’s not clear is who the board is listening to."

"I’m sure students will scrutinize more closely who is on the search committee," Coogan said. Coogan said that a "subtext" to the opposition against Fernandes was "deaf politics." Fernandes learned sign language late in life. Protesters have complained that the administration has attempted to play up this issue rather than focus on critics' real concerns, which were Fernandes’s alleged poor leadership and lack of charisma.

"We weren’t spinning it," Coogan said. "We were pushing it." Coogan added that the administration was worried about raising the issue of deaf politics but that reporters kept bringing up the issue in their news reports.

 

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