Silent Majority: Gallaudet Protests Shut Down School
October 16, 2006
Over the weekend Gallaudet president I. King Jordan authorized the arrest of 133 student protestors who barricaded the entrance to the Washington, D.C. campus of the nation's only liberal arts college for the deaf. The protestors were instantly replaced by comrades and the barricade continues. President Jordan's actions have angered many throughout the school community and the national deaf community as a whole. Below is a report filed from Gallaudet's campus on Friday.
October 13, 2006: The protest barricade that closed down Gallaudet University, the nation's premier higher education institution for the deaf, entered its third day today with few signs of an immediate resolution. The unrest has been caused by controversy over who will serve as the university's next president.
Protestors milled around on both sides of the campus entrance on Rhode Island Avenue NE, in Washington, D.C. A rope stretched across the break in the tall metal fence surrounding the campus. Student protestors guarded it carefully, only allowing sympathetic students, faculty, staff, and alumni to enter the campus. Exceptions were also made for student leaders from nearby universities, such as the student body president of George Washington University and the president of the NAACP chapter at George Mason University, according to Andres Piedrahit, a senior majoring in finance and business who was born in Venezuela and raised in Queens, N.Y.
Meanwhile students immediately inside the fence repeatedly banged a huge drum normally used at football practices. The drum creates vibrations that can be felt by the deaf standing anywhere nearby, and was the only regular noise punctuating the lively, but silent, environment.
The fence was peppered with signs bearing phrases such as "Hell No, We Won't Go" and "Thousands of protestors, Two Demands, One Goal." The two demands referenced are that the newly appointed university president, Dr. Jane K. Fernandes, step down and the presidential search process re-open, and that student protest leaders face no repercussions. The one stated goal of the protest movement, known simply as the Faculty Staff Student Alumni Coalition (FSSA) is expressed on the t-shirts worn by many of the students, which feature a photo of a May protest, when Fernandes' appointment was announced: "Unity for Gallaudet." One could also glimpse through the fence the tent city where the most devoted protestors have slept for the last few nights.
Sympathizers outside included a student handing out a press release of FSSA's latest demands, faculty supporters, school sign language interpreters, and staff members with more mixed feelings. Liz Stone, a Galludet development officer, said she supports a resolution to this issue because "it's a painful time for the university." While she stopped short of explicitly endorsing FSSA's calls for Fernandes to resign, she acknowledged, "There is a lot of anti-[Fernandes] sentiment, and it's going to be difficult with her staying to work here." But she added, "Even if she leaves it's going to be a very sad day."
But Gloria Farr, a graduate student in social work who was standing nearby, offered that there could be no resolution to the protests other than Fernandes resigning. "I don't see the students giving up at all, it's too big a cause," she said. "The president of Gallaudet is the president of the entire deaf Mecca," Farr explained, so it is extremely important to students and the larger deaf community that the president be a leader with broad-based support.
Fernandes has served as Gallaudet provost for the past six years, but the protestors are dissatisfied with what they see as her detached management style. "A provost should work with students," Farr said. "Fernandes doesn't take on the students priorities and isn't supportive of students, and she wouldn't be as president."
Dr. I King Jordan, the outgoing president of Gallaudet who was the university's first deaf president, has seen his considerable stature among students diminished by his role in promoting Fernandes' candidacy. Farr echoed the sentiment of many protest leaders when she admitted that while in the past Jordan "had been a wonderful president, his actions in the past year have made me not think much of him anymore."
Dr. Barbara Gerner de Garcia, a professor of multi-cultural education in the graduate education program and co-chair of the graduate committee on diversity, was also outside in support of the protest movement. She shared the FSSA's complaints that the presidential search committee brought in only white consultants who only put forward only white candidates as finalists. Last May, the faculty overwhelmingly passed a vote of no-confidence against Fernandes and the board of trustees, which supervised the search process, Gerner de Garcia added.
Gerner de Garcia, who is not deaf, said that the faculty also perceived Fernandes as unresponsive. She hotly disputed the complaint of Fernandes that the protestors' real problem is that Fernandes is not "deaf enough." "That's bullshit. [Fernandes] made it up." Gerner de Garcia added that some of the other candidates preferred by the FSSA have the same background as Fernandes, who is deaf but did not grow up speaking American Sign Language as her primary language.
For years I've looked at Gallaudet as a neo-colonial state," Gerner de Garcia said. "I said that to a Nigerian friend who works here the other day, that it's like [longtime dictator of Zimbabwe Robert] Mugabe and she said, 'That's exactly right!'" Gerner de Garcia explained the analogy: "For years Gallaudet was governed by hearing people. The people who replaced the hearing were colonized in their way of thinking. We need a new approach." News reports have described a counter-protest movement supposedly developing, there were no counter-protestors to be found at Galludet's main gate. Gerner de Garcia said earlier in the day some professors had taught their classes to a few students on nearby West Virginia Avenue, just off-campus, but there was no one to be found there this afternoon.
In a dramatic turn of events, Gallaudet student body president Noah Beckman appeared on top of a pillar at the gate corner where protest leaders were directing traffic. Beckman, who has been a staunch movement supporter, began by apologizing for having disappeared the last few days. He had papers to finish from two courses in which he took incompletes last semester, he explained. Meanwhile, someone had set up an email account in his name and sent emails declaring that he was stepping down as student body president because he did not support the protest movement. This is false, he assured the crowd--the emails were a hoax and he had no intention of abandoning the movement, he declared to enthusiastic cheers.
While the details of this controversy are specific to Gallaudet, the issue of how school administrations share governance with their constituents resonates at any university. As Liz Stone, the development officer, observed, "This is an important lesson in what happens when the community feels it is not being heard."