Signs of Change at Gallaudet ; at the Only US Liberal Arts University for the Deaf, Protesters' Calls for Reform Highlight Concerns of the Deaf Community

Article excerpt

Classes at Gallaudet University filled up again last week after months of protests by students, faculty, and alumni finally prompted the Board of Trustees to start over in its search for a campus president.

The spark that set off the protests was the appointment of an unpopular administrator to lead Gallaudet. But because of the singular place it holds as the only liberal arts university for the deaf in the United States, the factors that fanned the demonstrations go much deeper, linking today's activists to a broader movement of social justice for the deaf.

The tent cities are gone; the gates once again open onto pristine lawns. But the campus is still shaken, the mood a mix of hope and melancholy. Students and administrators are keenly aware that there's much to be done to restore trust and find the way forward for the university they all love.

Protests started last May when the board announced that Provost Jane Fernandes would take over when the current president, I. King Jordan, retires Dec. 31. People objected to what they saw as Ms. Fernandes's top-down leadership and lack of charisma; they raised concerns that the board didn't consider student and faculty input. More students joined, angry at how protesters were treated by the administration.

The intensity of the protests - a level not seen on an American campus for more than a decade - speaks to the fact that many see Gallaudet's president as the face of the deaf world. It is one of the few places where, since its founding in 1864, deaf people have been able to access higher education directly, through sign language - even during a historical era when oral teaching was widespread and signing was viewed as subversive. People commonly refer to Gallaudet as a "beacon."

Events here resonate far beyond the 1,900-student campus in Washington. Solidarity protests sprang up from New Mexico to Finland, and various deaf and hard-of-hearing advocacy groups have weighed in.

Similar leadership crisis in 1988

President Jordan was himself appointed in response to student protesters' demands in 1988 for a deaf president - the first in the university's history. But after he called in law enforcement to clear away some protesters in October, many students say they felt betrayed by the very person they have long regarded as a hero.

"In some ways, the [recent] protest is really an extension of what was started in 1988," says Marlon Kuntze, a linguistics scholar at Boston University and a graduate of Gallaudet. At that time, it was enough to have a president who was deaf, but now there may be a growing demand for Gallaudet to make faster progress on research and advocacy to improve deaf people's lives, he says. "Deaf people are trying to define their place in the world.... Deaf children are still shortchanged regularly. Deaf people's rights are still denied."

The issue is not just about who will lead Gallaudet, but how that person will be chosen. Protesters say Fernandes was hand-picked by Mr. Jordan, and that there needs to be more community input.

"The ideal presidential candidate would be selected through a clear and transparent search process ... [and would be] someone who values shared governance," says Leah Katz-Hernandez, an undergraduate who helped organize the protests. "I believe the next presidential search process will be the most scrutinized presidential search process ever." (She was among more than a dozen students, faculty, and administrators interviewed by the Monitor late last week, many of whom communicated through an American Sign Language [ASL] interpreter.)

Students feel so strongly, she and others say, because Gallaudet is like a family, with multiple generations of the same family often attending.

As in the evolution of other social movements, there may be a certain generational assertiveness and succession taking place here, suggests David Garrow, a civil rights scholar and senior fellow at Homerton College, University of Cambridge, England. …