Students and faculty at Gallaudet University here in the District, the world’s only deaf liberal arts university, are enraged that even in a place where American Sign Language is the lingua franca, their voices are being ignored. The campus has been in turmoil since the school’s Board of Trustees decided last May to hire Dr. Jane K. Fernandes to replace current University President I. King Jordon.
Fernandes, who has served as University Provost for six years, was chosen for the position despite four votes of no-confidence by the faculty senate and an ‘unacceptable’ evaluation by the student body.
Students began protesting the appointment almost immediately after it was announced in May, and faithfully resumed their movement upon returning to classes this semester. Two weeks ago, after months of being ignored, several students occupied the Hall Memorial Building, one of the primary academic buildings on the campus, in an attempt to force the administration to negotiate with the student body. Early Wednesday morning, protesters blockaded the gates to the campus and on Friday 134 students were arrested for blocking the entrances. Students at Gallaudet should be applauded for refusing to silently agree to her appointment and accept a president whom they find reprehensible.
Fernandes is unpopular thanks to her limited speaking ability in American Sign Language and “her arrogant, vindictive, autocratic, and retaliatory style of leadership,” according to the Gallaudet University Faculty, Staff, Students and Alumni Association. Additionally, she disbanded faculty government and sabbatical leave for the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center during her vice-presidency there, and created “an atmosphere of distrust and fear,” according to a letter from the faculty protesting her appointment.
Whatever her credentials, the people most qualified to know what the deaf community at Gallaudet needs in a leader are the members of the deaf community and the faculty and students of the University itself. Instead of being consulted seriously, they have been blatantly ignored. The administration, by refusing to even consider asking Fernandes to resign, has forced the students to take drastic measures in order to have their concerns addressed.
Monday night the faculty resolved to demand Fernandes’ resignation again with a vote of 138 to 24, but it is doubtful that a fifth condemnation will do much more than the previous four. Meanwhile, the students, after months of mild but persistent protest, have taken the drastic steps necessary to keep Fernandes from becoming Gallaudet’s ninth president. In an era when student activism is all but dead, Georgetown students should cheer on and support the Gallaudet protestors for having the courage to make their voices heard by the thoughtless administration.