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Successor to the King

April 21, 2006

Students storming the football field is nothing new, but it isn’t usually because of a presidential search.

At Gallaudet University, though, where demonstrations in 1988 shut down the university when trustees initially selected a hearing person as the institution's new leader, presidential passion is nothing new. Those demonstrations ushered in I. King Jordan as the first deaf president of the university.

Jordan has been the president ever since. During his tenure, Gallaudet saw its programs and facilities increase as the endowment ballooned from $5 million to $150 million.

But, in September, Jordan announced that 2005-6 would be his last academic year.

Gallaudet has whittled the search for a successor down to three, and hundreds of students rallied Wednesday to express their interest in a process that they see as pivotal to the future of the institution and its unique place -- which says it is the only university in the world completely tailored for deaf students -- in the deaf community.

The gathering had no single theme, beyond interest in the search process, but groups of student in the mass had their own particular agendas.

One group of students, which included members of the Black Deaf Student Union, expressed some dissatisfaction because Glenn Anderson, formerly chair of Gallaudet’s Board of Trustees and a black man, was not chosen to be among the three finalists. The students "wanted to make it known that they felt that diversity is being overlooked,” said a senior, Jessica Rogers.

For the most part, though, students who were interviewed -- all of whom corresponded over e-mail and instant messenger -- agreed with Rogers’s sentiment that the rally was to make the trustees and search committee “aware of our interest in this entire process and to take our thoughts into consideration.”

Anthony Mowl, another senior, explained why even departing students have a great stake in the search. “Gallaudet is unique because it is one of the few universities in the world where it is not at all uncommon for students to be the third or fourth generation in their family to attend Gallaudet,” said Mowl, whose mother is an alumna and whose brother is a freshman. “So naturally, we all want to ensure that the best possible person is selected as president.”

All three finalists are deaf, so, while Jordan was the first, he will necessarily not be the last. But heated opinions abound, nonetheless.  

One thing many students are pushing for is to have the final decision, which is slated for after graduation, made before the end of the academic year, so that the campus environment is in full swing.

Mercy Coogan, a spokeswoman for the university, said that the trustees are “very aware that students want the announcement by May 5, after which many will be departing for the summer,” she said, adding that the board will do all “that it can to meet this deadline, but can’t absolutely promise it will.”

Rogers added that students “would like to be present to either celebrate or protest the newly elected president.” And students said that protest would be likely if Jane Fernandes, the current provost and one of the finalists, is selected.

Fernandes has both strong supporters and detractors, but many of the students interviewed, some who did not wish to be named, said that Fernandes has a reputation as a disciplinarian -- partly stemming from the expulsion of students who tore down the goalposts after Gallaudet’s 9-0 football season -- and as a less than engaging public speaker.

Jane Jonas, a Gallaudet senior, said that many students dislike Fernandes because “her people skills are lacking,” she said.

Trevor Brennan, a sophomore, added that “many of us don't see [Fernandes] as truly deaf,” he said. “She was raised orally deaf, meaning she spoke and did not sign. Even now she seems to prefer voice to sign.”

Mowl said that Jordan is viewed as an outstanding public speaker, but that he “employs a mixture of speech and sign, and does not sign ‘true’ [American Sign Language], something many people want to see out of the next president.”

The two candidates other than Fernandes are both native signers. Ron Stern, one of the candidates, is currently superintendent of the New Mexico School for the Deaf, and Stephen Weiner is an associate professor of communication studies and former Gallaudet dean who is beloved by Gallaudet students.

A recent opinion poll of 188 students in the "Buff and Blue," the campus newspaper, had Weiner with about 51 percent, Stern with about 35 percent, and Fernandes with about 14 percent.

Whatever happens, it is sure to produce a flurry of hands. “It’s more than a school, it’s a family,” Jonas said. “For many of us coming to Gallaudet is coming home.”

 

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