Gallaudet University, the premier higher learning institution for the deaf, had been in turmoil since Dr. Jane K. Fernandes, the university’s provost, was selected as the institution’s newest president, to take office on Jan. 1. Days of demonstrations closed the campus for several days and led to the arrests of more than 100 students. Finally, the board of trustees rescinded its job offer to Fernandes. The protesting students cheered, some burned a cardboard likeness of Fernandes in effigy. Fernandes had been at Gallaudet since 1995, first as vice president of the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center, which serves deaf children from birth through grade 12. In 2000, she was promoted to provost. Nearly a week before the board caved to student and faculty protests, Fernandes talked with Diverse correspondent Patricia Valdata about her efforts to ease tensions at the university, the double standard imposed on female leaders and the need for more inclusion at Gallaudet. Fernandes, who learned sign language at the age of 23, chose to sign instead of speak during the interview. Beth Graham interpreted.
DI: What were you doing over the summer months to prepare for the presidency?
JF: Since May, I’ve had small group meetings with faculty, staff and students. I asked them to come and help me, to give me ideas as to how the university and I can move forward together. All of those meetings were very productive. Some of those meetings would go on for three hours, with people in the protest being very emotional and expressing their strong beliefs of what Gallaudet needs to do. That went on through the summer as well as into the fall. And I decided to teach a first-year seminar class. I thought that would help our freshmen to bond with me and understand who I am and understand other students better.
DI: Do you think that’s happened?
JF: Yes, I feel the bond did happen until the protest was reunified. Things were going very well. I really enjoyed being back in the classroom and the class was just terrific. It was a very exciting class until the protest occurred. When I would walk to my class, protestors would line up waiting for me in the hallway. It was very disruptive to the class, so I decided that I should have another faculty member take over for me.
DI: How many meetings have you had with students?
JF: So many meetings, I can’t emphasize that enough. I think when the students say I never met with them what they really mean is I’ve never agreed to resign. Another thing they’ve said is “she won’t listen to me,” but I’ve met with many students.
DI: I’ve read what the students are saying about you, and it seems to boil down to the fact that they just don’t like you. How do you feel about being subjected to that kind of feminine stereotyping where a female leader needs to be “warm?”
JF: I don’t think it’s by accident that this has happened to a woman. You know, I would be the first deaf woman president of Gallaudet. That should be a reason to celebrate for deaf people. The other woman president [Elizabeth Zinser], who was a hearing person, lasted five days during the 1988 “Deaf President Now” movement, which ultimately brought King Jordan to his position as the first deaf president of Gallaudet. It seems that there’s a strong campaign just to smear me, although I don’t think the protesters would say that’s the reason. I’m sure that if it were a deaf man, and if he did not say hello to people often or if he was not warm and friendly, then they would say that he’s very businesslike, he’s making important business decisions, and that’s the reason for his behavior. Also, I’ve been on our senior leadership team addressing various issues of diversity. For one or two years I’ve been pushing very hard to address racism and audism here at Gallaudet. And I feel that because I have been putting that kind of pressure on and pushing the issue that I’m taking the fallout for it.
DI: I looked up the statistics on your Web site for enrollment and if I did the math right, you have about 12 percent African-American, 9 percent Latino, 5 percent Asian-American, 3 percent American Indian and 16 percent hearing students pursuing degrees. Is your faculty balance anywhere near that?
JF: I have the statistics [obtained after the interview: 18 percent of Gallaudet’s 230 faculty are people of color and 40 percent are deaf.]. In general, I would say that the demographics of our student body and also our future pool of prospective students at Gallaudet are increasingly of color. Currently, 47 percent of deaf youth in high schools right now are of color. Clearly, if we would like to welcome those students on campus and have them see themselves reflected in this campus, then we have to increase the diversity of staff and faculty. I have a diversity action plan that is designed to do that very thing. We really do not have a good track record at this point with our students of color. Our African-American male students have a low graduation rate, the lowest of all our student populations, something like 12 percent. When they come to Gallaudet, oftentimes they’re falling through the cracks; they’re not feeling a real connection and they leave without graduating.
DI: Let’s talk about your background. Within the deaf community there must have been a very small pool of candidates to pick from. Who in the deaf community has the administrative experience necessary to run a university with a multimillion-dollar budget?
JF: Well, to be honest I don’t really know. I mean, if they have somebody better, bring ‘em on. But I think that’s to do with the students — they really don’t understand what a university president does, what the work of a university president is. In the deaf world, the president of Gallaudet is one position that is secured and has the trust and a huge responsibility to the whole deaf community at large. When you look at historically Black colleges and universities, there are several of those universities, but with the deaf population there’s only one university. The president has to run a university first, then the president can become something larger for that community.
DI: In the call for nominations for the position, most of the qualifications were for soft skills; administering a university was down on the list. A lot of it was about presenting the face of deaf culture. That’s an unusual call for a presidential nomination. Is that because you are in a unique situation here?
JF: It’s a reflection of a tension that exists between deaf culture and the deaf community, what their expectations are as to how the culture within the community works, and a tension between running a university as an educational institution and running it as a business. I have received criticism for past decisions that I made, but that is really extremely hard, because in terms of running the university as a business, as a place of employment, it has to follow certain regulations.
DI: You’ve talked about issues at HBCUs, but the parallel that comes to mind is more that of a tribal college, because it’s a cultural issue that you’re dealing with here, not race. You can envision in 50 years, if everybody who’s born deaf gets an implant, sign language could fade away. Does that sound like a valid consideration, and do you see that kind of parallel?
JF: I believe you’re on the right track there. There is a beloved treasuring of American Sign Language in the deaf community, and I am 100 percent committed to the centrality of ASL and deaf culture here at Gallaudet. Gallaudet was founded in 1864 on the idea that deaf people need to use visual language and have visual communication in order to learn. So that founding principle was and is and always will be ingrained here. We will always be a signing community. However, we need to expand the core to be inclusive of all types of deaf people.
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