By Ben Adler
WASHINGTON — A makeshift campground has arisen in the middle of Gallaudet University’s attractive campus, an island of grass and red brick buildings in a drab section of Northeast Washington, D.C. Thirty-five tents form a large circle around the perimeter of the plaza in front of the Student Union. At night the tents house approximately 150 protestors. By day another 300 comrades come by to lend support. This diverse group of protestors–mostly students, but also faculty, alumni and staff–set up camp at the beginning of the semester on Monday, continuing a movement that culminated last May in a two week tent city camp out. They are there to protest the selection of university provost Dr. Jane K. Fernandes to replace long-serving icon Dr. I. King Jordan as the school’s president, and the manner in which she was chosen.
The movement conveys its diversity–but little else–in its title: the Faculty Staff Student Alumni Coalition (FSSA). Though Fernandes’ appointment is the FSSA Coalition’s primary grievance, their concerns surrounding the presidential search and hiring process represent more basic issues of how much, or how little, the university respects and incorporates the views of its constituents.
Alison Aubrecht, who holds two degrees from Gallaudet and now works for the university as a personal counselor at the Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD), a high school run on Gallaudet’s campus, is one of the leaders of the FSSA. She held a sign and sports a shirt that both feature the phrase “Unity for Gallaudet.” She has a litany of problems with Fernandes and the way in which she was chosen. “Fernandes was provost for six years and her performance was unsatisfactory,” she began. “Fernandes was appointed by King Jordan without faculty participation, and the faculty gave her a vote of no confidence because she was unwilling to share governance with them.” This is the protestors’ most basic issue–that Fernandes was handpicked by former President Jordan and pushed through without support from the larger community. Graduate student Erin Moran complained, “[Jordan] should be neutral but he obviously has a bias towards Fernandes.”
“She’s oppressive in small ways,” continued Aubrecht. “One professor was a victim of harassment because of his sexual orientation and Fernandes fired him. They called it ‘non-reappointment’. She banned the yearbook with no explanation. The students [who had already ordered one] didn’t get their money back.”
But the protestors’ complaints run deeper than antipathy toward Fernandes.
“The presidential search committee did not accurately reflect the university in terms of diversity,” said Aubrecht. “Dr. Glenn Anderson, chairman of the Board of Trustees for twelve years, an African-American Ph.D who was well-liked [in the school community], was not seriously considered. The three finalists were all white. One had only a master’s. So that he was chosen over Dr. Anderson upset a lot of people.”
Student activists also complain that the administration has been unwilling to respond to any of their concerns. They claim their letters, going back to one sent last year about the lack of diversity on the search committee, have received no response. The Gallaudet public relations office told Campus Progress that the school spokesperson was too busy to answer any questions by press time for this article.
The FSSA Coalition movement is not limiting itself to the physical confines of campus. Various websites devoted to the protest movement have sprung up, including an event calendar at www.deafbison.net, and video broadcasts in sign language that are frequently updated at www.signcasts.com. And, according to Laurene Simms, an associate professor in the Education Department who received her MA in Deaf Education Programs from Gallaudet, there are alumni groups in the San Francisco Bay area and Wisconsin organizing to pressure the administration as well.
On campus, the tent city is only one manifestation of the protestors’ outrage. Other actions they have recently taken, or plan to take, include a rally, walkouts from classes, and a sit-in, according to movement leader Chris Corrigan, an undergraduate majoring in public relations and business with a minor in philosophy. Corrigan echoed Aubrecht’s complaints about Fernandes’ background, pointing to the fact that she was never a university professor (she worked at MSSD before becoming Gallaudet provost). Although their complaints are structural, the FSSA Coalition’s demands are only that Fernandes resign and the search process be re-opened, and that protestors not face any reprisals. Corrigan claimed overwhelming majorities of the student body and faculty oppose Fernandes’ appointment, and he thinks her unpopularity is itself confirmation of her poor qualifications for the job, arguing “a good leader would have a good following.”