Gallaudet Shuts Down

With neither side budging over choice of president, students block access to campus and professors call for her to step aside.
October 12, 2006

The protest over the selection of Jane K. Fernandes as Gallaudet's next president -- which escalated last week when students took over the main academic building -- ratcheted ever higher Wednesday when members of the university's football team manned the front gates and shut the campus down. They were later joined by hundreds of students who formed a human chain to block anyone trying to enter.

Sophomore Calvin Doudt, who plays middle linebacker, said that the players decided to bring the situation to a head because students were scared and confused. Despite the fact that hundreds of protesters had already closed the main academic building, administrators had tried to keep the campus running by scheduling classes in other buildings, including the cafeteria. Students were not sure whether classes were being held and were concerned about their grades.

Student leaders said that they had tried to negotiate an end to the building lockdown, and to move the protest to a number of “safe zones” around the campus, but were rebuffed by President I. King Jordan. At 3:30 Wednesday morning, Doudt said that the football team chose to act. “We just decided to lock the whole campus down,” Doudt said.

By early morning, students running the protest posted a news release. “This is a Coup d’Universite carried out by the students. We no longer recognize Dr. Irving King Jordan as our Gallaudet President.”

With classes effectively canceled, students at Gallaudet's high school for the deaf, which is located on the university's campus, were leaving early for the weekend and could be seen wheeling their suitcases out the front gate where parents were waiting. A press scrum formed on a sidewalk outside the main gate where Gallaudet's press officer, Mercy Coogan, unable to enter the campus, read a statement e-mailed to her by President Jordan.

“Civility, integrity, and truth are victims today, held hostage as much as our beloved campus. I have been asked why I haven’t used police to end the standoff. It is because I care about the safety of all of our students more than the protesters care about anything but getting their way. This illegal and unlawful behavior must stop. The faculty members who are instigating and manipulating the students have simply gone too far in pursuit of their own agendas.”

Coogan then took a phone call from Jordan and answered questions from television crews. Exhausted, she then walked across the street to rest in her new office, a white Toyota sedan with an advertisement from Cluck-U-Chicken stuck to the driver’s window.

Television cameras were stopped at the protest line, but a reporter from Inside Higher Ed slipped between two freshmen and met with faculty who had gathered to pow-wow.

“You’ve got 50 Ph.D.s trying to write a statement,” joked Roger Beach, a professor of counseling. Beach said that he had no idea what might happen next and was stunned that Jordan had rejected the students’ request to end the lockdown of the campus building and move the protest to the "safe zones." Still, he said that Jordan would probably not escalate the situation by calling in a police force from the District of Columbia.

“Nobody wants to arrest 300 deaf kids,” he said.

The Gallaudet situation has puzzled many people watching it from a distance: Why are students and at least some professors seemingly so unhappy with Fernandes? Beach offered some assessments that were confirmed by a few other faculty members who did not wish to be quoted. Fernandes has a top-down leadership style that has rubbed many faculty members the wrong way. And like many students interviewed, Beach added that she is also “introverted” and lacks the charisma that they view as important for a college president.

Beach also added details about why faculty and students feel that the presidential search was tainted. Beach said that a series of incidents showed that Fernandes was always the preferred choice by the current and departing president, I. King Jordan. When Jordan announced his retirement last fall, he then welcomed Fernandes to stand next to him, inadvertently signing “the next president” before correcting himself and identifying Fernandes with her proper title “provost.” Beach said that he saw the gaffe himself as did the hundreds who attended.

Beach also dismissed any allegation that Fernandes was unpopular because she had not learned sign language until later in life. “The reality is that she has the same background as many of the students here,” he said, noting that students have a range of hearing difficulty and that many students are now mainstreamed into regular classes. "This is not deafness politics. It’s about leadership.”

“The sad thing is that the [Fernandes] has not come down to meet us,” said Doudt. He said that Fernandes may have qualities that look good on paper, but that the campus community doesn’t feel that way. “None of it matters if we don’t like her.”

The student body president, Noah Beckman, also said that Fernandes is simply not seen as an effective leader. “She hasn’t even met with us,” he said. “What kind of leader is that?”

Like many students, Beckman also said that the search process that resulted in the choice of Fernandes was flawed by perceived racism. One of the candidates that did not make the final cut was Glenn Anderson , who is black. While Anderson does not have administrative experience, he chaired Gallaudet’s Board of Trustees for 11 years and is a professor at University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Meanwhile, a white candidate who runs a deaf high school did make the final cut, although he only has a master's degree and lacks experience in higher education.

Beckman added that is difficult for people who are outside the deaf community to understand the passion surrounding the choice of president for Gallaudet. “It’s hard because the deaf community is different,” he said. “The choice of president will reflect on the whole deaf community and [Fernandes] is not an effective leader.

By early evening, faculty leaders released a statement signed by 41 tenured and tenure-track faculty members (the university has about 220 instructors all together ). The statement said that the professors supported the students, and that the ongoing strife severely affected Gallaudet’s ability to maintain its status as the premier institution for the deaf. “[T]he group reached consensus in calling for Jane K. Fernandes to resign from her position for the greater good of Gallaudet University.”

 “This university has stopped functioning,” said Jeff Lewis, a professor of counseling and one of the letter's signers.

“I wish that this will end soon,” said Doudt, who noted that his team has a game in the next couple of days. “I’ve already missed classes. If it continues, we won’t have a game. And I know the players won’t want that.”


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