Gallaudet University's board named an interim president Sunday -- and in a break with recent turmoil on the campus, the selection of Robert Davila won immediate praise from hundreds who gathered in a campus auditorium to hear the announcement. "We don’t need to be reminded of our recent experiences here,” said Pamela Holmes, chair of the board. “Life brings great pain, but we must all look forward to the future.”
Davila stepped to the podium amid a standing ovation as audience members cheered and waved their fingers in the air to sign the word for applause. “I’m here to help you and all the constituents to work together to resolve our issues and bring back Gallaudet,” he said. Davila said that his appointment as president was the happiest moment in his life, but also the saddest because the university is trying to find a way out of many current crises.
A Gallaudet alumnus who worked at the university for many years as well, Davila led the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, a division of the Rochester Institute of Technology, from 1996 to 2004. He also has extensive political experience -- which could be key, given Gallaudet's reliance on federal appropriations -- having served as an assistant secretary of education for special education and rehabilitative services during the administration of President George H.W. Bush.
While the Gallaudet position is interim, it is planned for at least 18 months, with the board thinking that some of the university's problems need addressing before another full-fledged presidential search can succeed. Davila plans to retire when his interim term is done. He succeeds I. King Jordan, who is leaving office at the end of the year, and plans to teach at the university after a sabbatical. Jordan was once a hero to deaf leaders at Gallaudet and elsewhere, but a bitter battle over who would succeed him has left the campus divided, with many students and professors furious with Jordan.
"Jordan must face some consequences for his actions,” said Noah Beckman, the student body president. Beckman said that students are suffering from a “protest hangover," but he seemed pleased with the new choice. “Davila is going to raise the university’s credibility. He has the passion that we are looking for.”
Throughout his acceptance speech, Davila stressed the need for “open communication” on the campus and the importance of sign language. He said that he plans for start a university council of students, professors and other employees to discuss problems. He also said that he plans to appoint an ombudsman to serve as an independent investigator of campus concerns. And he said he would push hard to raise private funds for the university -- and to reach out to Congress.
Other goals he mentioned included development of a strategic plan and responding to concerns that have been raised from on and off the campus about the quality of education. “We must be our own worst critics,” he said. “Because if we don’t, somebody else will assume that role.”
The Gallaudet board's initial choice for the next president was Jane K. Fernandes, the provost. But after months of protests, which at times effectively shut down the institution, the board withdrew its offer in late October. The opposition to Fernandes came in large part from the view that she wasn't sufficiently supportive of students and faculty members on the campus, but her supporters also suggested that deaf cultural politics had played a key role. Fernandes was raised reading lips and did not learn American Sign Language until she was in graduate school. Her critics claimed that the "deaf enough" question wasn't their real motivation, and was being used by Fernandes supporters to discredit the protest movement.
The materials Davila submitted to the search committee noted factors that might make him a welcome choice. In his application letter, he called himself a "people person," talked about his commitment to working closely with students, and also noted his success at NTID and elsewhere in raising private funds. Besides success with NTID's endowment, he has also helped raise money for deaf education in numerous countries around the world.
In discussing his language background, Davila -- who lost his hearing as a young boy -- noted that his first language was Spanish, that he learned American Sign Language before learning English, and that he now considers himself comfortable in all three. Among the issues some protesters had raised during the fracas over the Fernandes appointment was whether the university was sufficiently committed to ASL and to diversity.
Faculty leaders who worked with Davila in Rochester had high praise for him. Jean-Guy Naud, a professor of arts and imaging studies at NTID, described Davila as "well liked by everyone -- faculty, staff and students." Naud, vice president of RIT's chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said that whenever faculty members wanted to talk, Davila was available and open to their ideas.
"I can only say good things about him," Naud said. "There were no controversies the whole time, and that's nothing short of a miracle in higher education."
On the questions of deaf culture, Naud said he saw Davila as "eclectic," reflecting NTID's unique role as a college for deaf students within a larger university where most students are hearing. "We have the whole spectrum of students here, from students who don't know how to sign to those who grew up with deaf parents and signed from the crib on," Naud said.
"Some of our students very much want to be in a totally deaf environment, and some of our students want to have lots of hearing friends, and everything in the middle," Naud said. Davila's attitude was that "he felt that whatever students wanted to do, we at NTID should be supportive, and he was."
At Gallaudet on Sunday, the support was quite evident for Davila. “It’s been a tough period for us, but things are looking better,” said Mark Weinberg, chair of the Faculty Senate.
After facing months of tough questions from reporters and many long days monitoring the protests, Mercy Coogan, a spokeswoman, expressed relief that Gallaudet seemed back to normal. “I’m so at peace," she said. "This is a happy day.”