Searching for Answers at Gallaudet

October 25, 2006

As the fractious situation at Gallaudet University appears headed for some kind of resolution on Sunday, with a special meeting planned by the university's Board of Trustees, supporters and critics of Jane K. Fernandes remain deeply divided over the core of the dispute about her possible ascension to the presidency. 

Fernandes has continuously said that Gallaudet should be open for all deaf people and has implied, and sometimes stated, that she has not been accepted because she learned American Sign Language late in life. In an essay she wrote for The Washington Post titled "Many Ways of Being Deaf," she argued that during the selection process for the president, "the issues of audism and racism that have plagued the deaf community for centuries came to the forefront." Audism is discrimination based on hearing ability.

In a later interview, she said , "I am not a native signer.... The protesters want to make this about me." And in an online discussion, she wrote that the turmoil is caused by the external pressures on the deaf community, including cochlear implants, more powerful hearing aids and genetic research. "My African American friends seem to understand the pressures the deaf community is feeling," she wrote. 

However, during dozens of on-campus interviews with students, faculty and alumni, that issue has rarely been raised by her opponents. Instead, most give a litany of reasons why Fernandes is unfit, often focusing on her perceived lack of leadership skills and an unengaging personality.

“I was pretty neutral about the whole thing when I first came in,” said a first year graduate student, Jennifer Myers. She said she knew that Fernandes was not liked, but that she had never interacted with her until she attended an orientation meeting for graduate students over the summer. “She was just not a nice person. I know this sounds stupid, but she doesn’t have personal skills, and you need that to lead people.” Myers added that she noticed that Fernandes does not smile when meeting people.

John Slone, a senior majoring in government, said, “It’s not about deaf issues,” adding that “if that’s the issue, then why are there so many hearing people here?”

“She doesn’t connect with people,” said Mark Weinberg, chair of the Faculty Senate and professor of linguistics. “She doesn’t look you in the eye.” Weinberg said that he does not understand how someone who lacks charisma can be an effective fund raiser and public face for the university. He added that the only people making a big fuss about “deaf politics” have been members of the administration.

The biggest problem, he said, is that Fernandes has not respected the faculty and the need for shared governance during her six years as provost. He cited numerous instances in which Fernandes allegedly disregarded normal channels for faculty consultation, such as the choice of a new librarian and even the procedure by which faculty were recently given raises. “There’s a litany of things,” he said.

Weinberg said the accumulation of incidents have left faculty with the impression that Fernandes does not value their input or feel the need to work with them. “It’s a finely tuned clock,” he said of the relationship between faculty and a university administration. “And now it is broken.”

A Gallaudet spokeswoman, Mercy Coogan, confirmed that the board will meet on Sunday. “I think a lot of people are hoping they will bring some silver bullet,” she said. Any solution will be fraught with difficulties, however, because faculty have voted overwhemingly for Fernandes to resign, but she has already signed a contract to take over the university in January.

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