The Magazine

Identity Politics Gone Wild

The Deaf culture wars at Gallaudet University.

Apr 2, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 28 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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And so it went at Gallaudet, where 50-year-old Jane K. Fernandes, a deaf woman who had been unanimously selected by the board of trustees from a field of 24 applicants to be Gallaudet's president starting this January, when her predecessor I. King Jordan retired, had her contract summarily revoked by the trustees on October 29. In fact, getting rid of Fernandes, who had served as provost at Gallaudet from 2000 to 2006, was the very aim of the Gallaudet strike. The university is now operating under an interim president with a two-year contract, 74-year-old Robert Davila, a Gallaudet graduate (class of 1953), until a permanent president can be found.

Davila, a veteran ad-min istrator at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (a unit of the Rochester Institute of Technology created by Congress in 1969) and the Education Department under President George H.W. Bush, is regarded by his former colleagues as a deft political maneuverer who may well succeed in bringing peace and restoring academic standards to Gallaudet, but who plays his cards close to the vest. "All I know about the protests is what I learned in the media," he said in a recent interview at his campus office. "There are a lot of outstanding programs on this campus," he added. "The instructors take pride in their work, they're professionals, they have expectations of their students. There has always been a diverse group of people here."

Back in the sixties, it was difficult for most outsiders to figure out why so many U.S. college campuses--Harvard, Columbia, the University of California, and numerous others, their students basking in post-World War II comfort, prosperity, and unprecedented educational opportunity--exploded in conflagration for what now seem the most tangential of reasons: the draft? Vietnam? ROTC on campus?

The same went for Fernandes, whose precipitous removal after weeks of disruption that brought the Gallaudet campus to a standstill left many outside observers puzzled. She was supposed to be "not deaf enough" to satisfy her opponents because she had grown up using her voice and had not learned American Sign Language (ASL) until age 23--even though she had been deaf from birth, had a deaf mother and brother, and boasted a career devoted to deaf education, including the promotion of ASL.

Or maybe--as a new argument went after the "not deaf enough" argument seemed to fall on deaf ears among outsiders, so to speak, and was quickly shelved--Fernandes wasn't nice enough. In the fall of 2005 when she was provost, after Gallaudet students first destroyed the football goal-posts in a fit of post-game exuberance and then ran amok during a homecoming party at Washington's Hyatt Regency Hotel, chasing each other down halls, waking guests, pulling fire alarms, and causing some $15,000 worth of damage, Fernandes issued a stern reprimand to the entire student body that did not go down well.

Some students later complained to news reporters that Fernandes was too "strict." She had confiscated the school yearbook in 2001 because, among other things, it included a photo taken without permission of a female student sitting on the toilet and jokingly suggested that another female student who wanted to be a middle-school teacher was sexually interested in young boys. (In an email, Fernandes said that parents of both students had complained, and she was concerned about the potential invasions of privacy and the yearbook's all-around poor taste.) Fernandes was said by her opponents to lack the charm and extroversion of Jordan. "She Doesn't Say Hi," read a student picket during the first round of protests in May. Other students told reporters that Fernandes didn't smile enough. Those were reasons to shut down the campus? That the students didn't like Fernandes? That Jordan, who had promoted her to provost in 2000, did? (Jordan had not consulted the Gallaudet faculty before promoting Fernandes seven years ago, and that violation of protocol had made her unpopular with many professors, who charged Jordan with favoritism.)

Again, head-scratching seemed in order. There can scarcely be a college campus in America whose provost isn't looked on as the disciplinary heavy and whose president isn't seen as an expensive-suited glad-hander who gets to live in a fancy mansion. Perhaps Fernandes did indeed lack the ideal personality for navigating the rocky shoals of clashing faculty, student, and alumni interests that is the life of a university president. Yet she had a solid scholarly publication record and a strong résumé as administrator of deaf primary and secondary schools in Hawaii and on the Gallaudet campus before becoming provost. She had beat out stiff competition for her job, and last May she had garnered the overwhelming support of the trustees who named her the next president. On most other university campuses, Fernandes would at least have been given a chance to prove herself.