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Standoff Grows at Gallaudet

October 9, 2006

Gallaudet University students and faculty members vigorously objected to the selection of Jane K. Fernandes as the institution’s president late last spring, but their protests failed to move trustees. As student leaders left the Washington, D.C., campus for the summer, they vowed that they weren’t done fighting. Late last week, they made good on that promise, escalating their protests with a building takeover.

Thursday night, after a meeting with the Board of Trustees that ended in a standoff, hundreds of students barricaded themselves inside the campus’s main academic building. The students were later joined by faculty, staff and alumni, and university officials continued meeting with them over the weekend to try to resolve the issue. However, the dispute appears to have ripped the Gallaudet community apart, sending ripples into the alumni association, whose president says the group will soon seek independence from the university.

The latest round in this dispute occurred as the trustees held their annual meeting. On Thursday, the board met separately with groups of faculty members and students, who both protested against the choice of Fernandes, Gallaudet’s provost, to head up the institution for the deaf at the end of this year. Fernandes will be Gallaudet’s ninth president, succeeding the departing president, I. King Jordan, who will retire in December. Fernandes will be Gallaudet’s second deaf president, although it was only late in life that she learned sign language, which some opponents have cited as a reason why Fernandes is so disliked.

Gallaudet provokes great passion, as it is not just the only college for deaf students, but also the cultural center for deaf people around the world. In a student poll last spring, Fernandes placed lowest of the three finalists for the position, and faculty gave her a vote of no confidence after the selection.

Inside Hall Memorial Building on Friday, hundreds of students flooded the first floor, guarding doors, and busily typing messages on BlackBerrys. Earlier that morning, a few students got into a scuffle with a security guard who entered the building after campus officials received a bomb threat. The guard did not know sign language and when students tried to communicate with him, he pushed a number of them out of the way, in apparent confusion, before quickly leaving.

“We have been saying that the search process was flawed, so Fernandes is not acceptable,” said Leah Katz-Hernandez, a sophomore and student leader, who has helped to organize the protest. (As was the case with many people in this article, the interview with Katz-Hernandez was conducted through a translator.) Katz-Hernandez charges that faculty, staff and students who have expressed a lack of support for the choice for president have been intimidated for speaking up. “We want to reopen the search process,” she said, adding that the students' perception that the board has refused to listen to their views -- an assessment Gallaudet officials dispute -- has “opened up a can of worms” on a host of issues surrounding shared governance on the campus that will not disappear even if Fernandes is quickly replaced.

“Students, faculty, and staff don’t see any leadership in Dr. Fernandes,” said Leah’s mother, Lizbeth Katz, who drove from her house in suburban Maryland after watching the scuffle with the security agent on television. “This is not a positive atmosphere.”

“This is beyond us, beyond a protest group,” said Chris Heuer, an instructor of applied literacy. “People have now started writing letters to their senators, and the alumni association is threatening to split off.”

Problems with the Gallaudet University Alumni Association boiled over after the association’s board prepared a letter complaining about the choice of Fernandes as president. The association’s monthly e-mail and newsletter are sent out by the university, which refused to publish the board’s letter. The university also controls the alumni database, meaning that the alumni association’s board cannot effectively contact its own members.

On Thurday, the board’s president, Andy Lange, met with university officials to ask for access to the alumni database and control of the alumni Web site. He said that the university “asked for more information about what we want to do with the database.”

“The alumni are heartbroken about what is happening,” he said, having joined the students in the Hall Memorial building. “But we are very proud of Gallaudet.” The alumni association’s board is meeting in two weeks and he expects that the board will vote to split from the university and become independent. “This goes beyond the choice of Dr. Fernandes. People are fed up.”

Across campus, Gallaudet’s director of public relations, Mercy Coogan, showed strain in her face and voice from the latest blowup, which brought her to the campus at 4:30 Friday morning. “It is not a fun day at Gallaudet,” she said.

The protest was fine while it occurred on the campus quad, and in protest letters, but crossed the line when people took over the Hall Memorial building. “This is now about taking over a campus building, which is against the law,” she said. Some faculty holding courses in Hall Memorial have sent out e-mails to students and are now rescheduling classes to meet in other buildings. Coogan added that university officials will continue to talk with students to resolve the issue, but that police from the District of Columbia may be called in to end the situation.

“The president will make the final call,” she said of Jordan.

Reiterating statements made by board leaders themselves, Coogan said that the process for selecting Fernandes was fair and open. Although the protesters have complained that the board has failed to listen to them, she said, the truth is that trustees have heard the dissent from faculty and students, but just disagree. “The board has said over and over again, ‘We hear you, but we disagree.’ ” However, she acknowledged that even having Fernandes step down would not solve the many problems that have now come to surface. Passion and emotion have simply grown too large.

“Gallaudet represents so much,” she said. “It’s a university, but also a cultural center. So what happens here is not of casual interest. It is profoundly important.”

That, in part, explains why neither side seems willing to budge.

 

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