A Sign of Change at Gallaudet

The world's only deaf university named a new president, and students who say their input was neglected are up in arms.
May 2, 2006

Gallaudet University, the only university in the world completely tailored to deaf students, introduced a new president Monday, and it took all of about 30 seconds for the protests to begin.

To an overflowing crowd of students, Sidekicks and Blackberrys poised to text the news, the chair of the Board of Trustees announced that Jane Fernandes, the current provost, will be Gallaudet’s ninth president, and its second deaf president, following I. King Jordan, who will retire at the end of this academic year.

Based on a student opinion poll, Fernandes had the fewest supporters of the three finalists, and has had to deal with several controversies during her time as provost that polarized the student body. Some students lamented what they called Fernandes’s general lack of warmth toward students, and others pointed to specific events that pegged her as a disciplinarian, including the expulsion of students who tore down the goalposts after the football team’s undefeated 2005 season.

Gallaudet students, many of whom are not the first in their family to attend the university, see the institution as a beacon of deaf culture, and even departing students are intensely passionate about the direction of the university.

Right after the announcement, a few students clapped, but Ryan Commerson, a Gallaudet alumnus who will return for graduate study in the fall, stood up and signed to the crowd, telling them “if you don’t agree, you don’t have to stay [in the auditorium during Fernandes’s acceptance speech],” Commerson related through a translator later in the day. Commerson was escorted off campus by security officers, and groups of several students heeded his call, trickling out of the auditorium as Fernandes spoke.

Celia May Baldwin, chair of the Board of Trustees, which made a unanimous decision to support Fernandes, noted that she had been at Gallaudet for more than a decade in various capacities. The board would have been hard-pressed, she said, to find anyone else with her depth of experience. She added that Fernandes "has proven her leadership skills time and time again, often having to make difficult decisions, and we believe that this has prepared her well."

In her acceptance speech in a campus auditorium, Fernandes said she “never dreamed of this,” and said that “I can’t promise to make perfect decisions … but I promise I will always make decisions in the best interest of the university.” She also thanked the Iowa deaf community “for teaching me sign language, and deaf culture.”

Some students had previously expressed concern that Fernandes is not a native signer. She was raised orally deaf, meaning she spoke and did not sign, and still sometimes speaks while signing. Her signing, however, while not native, is “very fluent,” according to her and to multiple translators interviewed on the campus.

While Jordan got a standing ovation -- some audible claps and yells and a room full of dancing fingers, the sign language applause -- Fernandes, who described Jordan as her “grand mentor,” said the reaction she drew was pretty much what she expected.

Fernandes, through an interpreter, said that she wants to be “the bridge builder,” and one of the first bridges she hopes to build is to the students who vehemently opposed her. “I have made some hard decisions,” she said. Some students have complained that Fernandes has been aloof, and generally inaccessible. “But provost and president are different roles,” Fernandes said. “I know I need to be more visible.”

One issue that Fernandes will have to face is the increasing number of deaf students choosing cochlear implants that allow them to hear, and then attending mainstream institutions. Gallaudet has to “broaden the net for recruiting,” said Fernandes, who said she hadn’t even heard of Gallaudet growing up. (Fernandes received her B.A. at Trinity College, in Connecticut, and got her Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of Iowa, and did not start learning sign language, in Iowa, until she was 23.)

She said that students from schools for the deaf have “always been Gallaudet’s bread and butter,” and whether or not they get implants, Gallaudet can give them a “strong sense of deaf culture.”

Jordan is commonly viewed as an outstanding public speaker, and Fernandes said she is more of “a quiet but effective leader.” Fernandes said that her “signing is really not an issue, but that “some of the strength of debate [over the presidential search] came as a surprise to me.”

In 1988, Gallaudet gave new meaning to strong reactions to a presidential selection when demonstrations shut down the university after trustees selected a hearing person to lead the institution. Those demonstrations, part of the Deaf President Now movement, ushered in Jordan as the first deaf president of the university. 

Within hours of Monday’s announcement, several hundred students clogged the main entrance to campus, signing strong opinions, mostly in opposition to the selection of Fernandes, or demanding an explanation of the selection process.

At the protest, some students used black paint to put “BPN” -- for “better president now” -- on their stomachs, while others hung a banner that read “Go Back to Iowa.”

Students stood atop walls, and sometimes on each others' shoulders, so that their signing could be seen across the crowd.

Commerson, like several other students, acknowledged that Fernandes is “very smart,” but he added that he thinks she’s “better off staying inside campus where she can contribute to academic rigor, not as [Gallaudet’s] public face.”

Ryan DiGiovanni, a spokesman for the Student Body Government, said through an interpreter -- the method of communication for nearly all the student interviews Monday -- that the government “feels students want information on how the selection process occurred.… they feel she was selected before the process began.”

Students said they were glad that all three finalists were deaf, but some said they don’t think their input was taken into consideration by the trustees.

A recent opinion poll of 188 students in the Buff and Blue, the campus newspaper, had about 14 percent of students supporting Fernandes, with the rest choosing one of the other two candidates.

Robert McConnell, chief of staff of the Student Body Government, said through an interpreter that the president of Gallaudet “has to be an ambassador for the entire deaf community.… One thing is very clear: Jane Fernandes is unacceptable.” McConnell added that Deaf President Now campaign was a “revolution,” and that this protest is different. “We want to have a voice,” he said.

Jessica Rogers, a senior, said that she isn’t confident that Fernandes will become the bridge builder. “She’s worked here for 11 years,” Rogers said. “If she hasn’t earned the trust of students yet … I don’t think anything will change.”

The anger was apparent just from the emphatic body language of some of the signing protesters, but Noah Beckman, president of the Student Body Government, offered more moderate signs.

He said that the trustees agreed to meet with representatives next Thursday. But many students in the crowd began furiously signing “Now! Now! Now!”

“Do you think everybody agrees?” Beckman asked the crowd. “Some students support her. We can’t go to the board without a united message. We need more voices.”

Students planned a meeting for Tuesday night on campus, and Beckman said student input would be solicited in the run up to a meeting with the board.

Jane Jonas, a senior, said that it helps that Jordan was a big supporter of Fernandes, but said that “it will take a long time” for her to mend prior wounds. Jonas added that she doesn’t “think students will be at peace until something is done.”


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top