Just days before she was ousted as the incoming president of Gallaudet University, Dr. Jane K. Fernandes talked with Diverse correspondent Patricia Valdata about the double standard imposed on women leaders and the need for Gallaudet to be more inclusive. The premier institution of higher learning for the deaf had been in turmoil since Fernandes was chosen as the incoming president to take office on Jan. 1. After several demonstrations that closed the university for a few days and lead to the arrests of more than 100 students, the board of trustees rescinded its job offer to Fernandes. The protesting students cheered, some burning a cardboard likeness of Fernandes in effigy. Fernandes had been at Gallaudet since 1995, first as vice president of the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center, which serves deaf children from birth through grade 12, and as provost since 2000. Fernandes, who learned to sign at age 23, chose to sign instead of speak during the interview. Beth Graham interpreted.
DI: I've read what the students are saying about you, and it seems to boil down to the fact that they just don't like you. How do you feel about being subjected to that kind of feminine stereotyping where a female leader needs to be "warm?"
JF: I don't think it's by accident that this has happened to a woman. You know, I would be the first deaf woman president of Gallaudet. That should be a reason to celebrate for deaf people. The other woman president [Elizabeth Zinser], who was a hearing person, lasted five days during the 1988 "Deaf President Now" movement, which ultimately brought King Jordan to his position as the first deaf president of Gallaudet. It seems that there's a strong campaign just to smear me, although I don't think the protesters would say that's the reason. I'm sure that if it were a deaf man, and if he did not say hello to people often or if he was not warm and friendly, then they would say that he's very businesslike, he's making important business decisions, and that's the reason for his behavior. Also I've been on our senior leadership team addressing various issues of diversity. For one or two years I've been pushing very hard to address racism and audism here at Gallaudet. And I feel that because I have been putting that kind of pressure on and pushing the issue that I'm taking the fallout for it.
DI: I looked up the statistics on your Web site for enrollment and if I did the math right, you have about 12 percent African-American, 9 percent Latino, 5 percent Asian-American, 3 percent American Indian and 16 percent hearing students pursuing degrees. Is your faculty balance anywhere near like that?
JF: I have the statistics [obtained after the interview: 18 percent of Gallaudet's 230 faculty are people of color and 40 percent are deaf]. In general, I would say that the demographics of our student body and also our future pool of prospective students at Gallaudet are increasingly of color. Currently, 47 percent of deaf youth in high schools right now are of color. Clearly, if we would like to welcome those students on campus and have them see themselves reflected in this campus, then we have to increase the diversity of staff and faculty of color. I have a diversity action plan that is designed to do that very thing. We really do not have a good track record at this point with our students of color. Our African-American male students have a low graduation rate, the lowest of all our student populations, something like 12 percent. …