A Non-Gallaudetian Speaks Out

I was 10 years old during DPN. I have vague recollections of “the week the world heard Gallaudet.” I remember knowing that it was something important and something to be proud of, even though I didn’t fully understand what was happening. A deaf university president? Great! That’s a pretty nice “hero” to have when you are 10 and your (mainstream) elementary school teachers are talking about it in class.

It is 19 years later, and instead of feeling pride, I am upset, torn, and depressed. Since learning about the arrests, my emotions have been all in a twist. I am not a Gally student or an alumna. I’m just a member of the Deaf community who hasn’t supported the protests (since May) for one reason:

Because I believe that Jane Kelleher Fernandes is, on paper, qualified for the job.

Now, before you bark at me, I understand that she has caused a lot of unhappiness among many students and former staff members at the Clerc Center. I have read the open letters, the memos, just about everything that has been made publicly available via blogs and other websites, including DeafDC.com. However, the letter that seems to be thrown out a lot is the following one, posted on the GUFSSA website titled, “Letter from Clerc Center Staff“.

The problem I have with this letter is that it’s unsigned. The claims put forth can only be respected if there are people willing to stand behind those claims. Whether or not reprisals occur, the fact that the letter is publicly anonymous lessens its credibility. As a former reporter, and a researcher, I must be skeptical of all anonymous materials.

Back to the presidency. Being a university president is very different than being a provost or other university-level administrator. Presidents are in a political arena, more so than other university administrators, including the Board of Trustees. Presidents are on the front lines when it comes to raising funds and being the “face” of the University. Presidents are involved not only with the day-to-day administration of the campus, but also with the surrounding community. In this case, Gallaudet’s community is not just the streets that border its campus. It is a world-wide community, simply because of its status as the only university for the deaf in the world. President Jordan is, effectively, a visible leader of the entire deaf community, whether or not deaf and hard of hearing individuals attend Gallaudet. Presidents at other universities don’t have that image to deal with in their daily jobs.

Even though Fernandes’ career at Gallaudet has been analyzed, speculated upon, and presented negatively, the fact remains that Fernandes is not the president yet. She is the president-designate. The Board of Trustees conducted a search process. President Jordan has iterated, and reiterated, that he was not involved in the search process. How can we know what Fernandes will do as President? Over the summer, during a BOT retreat, Jane Fernandes outlined a plan, a vision, for her Presidency. If the BOT supports it, how can we not give her a chance?

While I’m on the topic of the Board of Trustees, we need to remember two things: (1) the BOT includes Gallaudet alumni, and (2) the BOT had meetings that were open to the public and strongly encouraged students to attend. These meetings occurred early on in the search process. No students attended. If students don’t make their voices heard early on, why should the BOT listen to them afterward? I certainly understand the BOTs position on that.

With regard to claims that President Jordan “groomed” Fernandes to take over, well…that happens a lot. Historically, presidents have prepared their underlings to prepare them to take over. The problem here is that we have only one Deaf university. Fernandes could only be groomed to take over in one place: Gallaudet University. Provosts, vice-presidents, and other higher education officials at other universities can apply for university leadership positions anywhere. So, if Fernandes resigns, what happens to her? She doesn’t want to lose her job! Back in 1988, during Deaf President Now, President Zinser was hearing – she knew she had other options, and she willingly stepped down. Fernandes doesn’t, so of course she doesn’t want to step down. I actually applaud her stubbornness.

Now, I realize that if another finalist had been selected, these protests might not have happened. However, what is clear is that the Board of Trustees, by selecting Fernandes based on their reasons (which we don’t know), unwittingly caused something to happen: an outcry of students, staff and faculty who simply want to be heard. As soon as the protests started, the BOT and the university administration should have taken them seriously. The issues that were raised — and there are many — should have been addressed immediately. While Jordan and the administration say they have listened to the protestors, they don’t agree with them. They have every right to disagree, but I do think they should be discussing those issues more, and in public.

However, the protestors have done a very poor job in representing themselves maturely and with dignity. They have not respected the other students’ right to an education. By blocking off Hall Memorial Building, they prevented the majority of students on campus from getting an education. With protestors at the various gates around campus, President Jordan feared for the safety of other students, and closed the campus. I’m sure that was an agonizing decision for him to make. Safety, however, is just as important as education.

With regard to the protestors, they are actually a very slim minority of the student population. The university’s enrollment was 1,913 as of last Fall 2005. The number of students arrested last Friday? 133. Even if we allow for a drop in enrollment of 600 students this semester, the percentage of students arrested barely reaches 10 percent. That is a very slim percentage. Blog reports from campus indicate that a steady group of about 150-200 protestors have been manning the front gates. While the support of alumni and other members of the deaf community have increased the number of protestors at the various gates around Gallaudet, the fact remains that only about 10-15 percent of current Gallaudet students are protesting.

And, what exactly are they protesting for? I know what they’re protesting against: Fernandes, claims of audism on campus, lack of diversity in the presidential search process, program cuts that Fernandes and other administrators have made, etc. It’s all negative. I can’t find any reports from protestors that provide suggestions on how to improve the university; only that Fernandes must resign.

Even if Fernandes resigns or is removed by the BOT (neither of which is likely to happen), the issues pertaining to audism, other forms of discrimination, and the program cuts still remain. How should those be dealt with? Tell me, please. Tell me what you want to fight for, not simply fight against.

Now, with all this said, it should be clear that I’m against what the protest is about and how it’s being done. What I do support is the right of students to be heard, listened to, and taken seriously. But infringing on others’ right to an education is not the way to do that. Representing yourselves in a way that makes the majority of people reading or watching about the protest not want to support it is not a way to do that. However, standing up for yourselves and fighting for the right to be heard is great – I applaud you for that.

I urge the protestors to do two things: (1) agree to negotiations with a team of mediators and stick with the negotiations, and (2) figure out what it is you’re fighting for. Simply saying you want “unity for Gallaudet” is not enough. We need to see a plan. We need suggestions from you on how to make that happen. Concrete actions are much louder than words (and signs) said in anger and frustration.

I want to see Gallaudet University become an institution we can all be proud of. Its undergraduate program has a long way to go before it reaches the educational standards of other universities. We need to fight for not only the educational rights of Gallaudet’s students, but those in elementary and secondary schools for the deaf (and mainstreaming programs) all over the United States. It’s time to raise the bar.

Hilary Franklin is a longtime resident of the DC area and a graduate of both the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Columbia University. Her background is in public policy analysis and American Sign Language education, as well as cued American English instruction. She wonders how the protest will end and what its eventual impact on the deaf community will be.

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