Gallaudet Board of Trustuees Chief Steps Down

Gallaudet Board Chief Steps Down (may need free registration. Here’s a source from the school) stating stress and “numerous aggressive threats.” The article also reports that Fernandes has no plans to step down like the original candidate selected prior to I. King Jordan’ selection. The students protested. The candidate stepped down. Jordan became president.
I’m all for the students speaking out against something they don’t like. However, I’m questioning the validity of this protest as it sounds like they’d protest anyone selected and find a reason to do it. One resource indicated they protested because they were no minority candidates. Well, last I checked, being a woman was considered a minority.
I read Fernandes’ bio and she has a most impressive background in deaf education. Let’s Move on is right on and I think it tells the real story that the rest of us are missing.
Update: Please read the comments. Finally got insight! Even I think Gallaudet’s board made a big mistake now.


    • Alicia on May 14, 2006 at 12:00 am
    • Reply

    Meryl, I can understand how the reasons for the protest would be baffling for someone not familiar with what’s happened at Gallaudet over the past decade. They are complex and the Gallaudet administration has a near-monopoly on the media spin. Probably the most balanced reporting has come from the Washington Post, but nearly all the others have been quite one-sided.
    Though I did not attend Gallaudet myself (but had I known what I know now, I would’ve attended), I’ve learned a great deal about it over the years from both alumni and faculty. I have very serious concerns about how Jane Fernandes manages the people below her. She has cut jobs and resources as power plays over faculty who don’t agree with her. Last year, I was shown correspondence that she had sent to the student body, and I remember being shocked at how disrespectful her tone was towards them. My own hearing college would have never treated its students that way. Those are very serious leadership issues, and those alone I think should have disqualified her from the presidential search process.
    But there is also a larger issue in the background, one that I think the students and faculty may be struggling to verbalize. The one thing that stands out the most about Gallaudet – the one big, huge, colossal benefit that all the alumni I’ve met got out of their Gallaudet experience? The chance to be in a fully accessible communication environment, to know what it is like to experience … normalcy.
    Gallaudet students get the chance to do things they could only dream of doing at other colleges: talk to whomever they want with no preliminaries necessary, take leadership positions, be a fully equal participant in classroom discussions with no interpreter time delay or fear of missing information, come home to their rooms NOT exhausted by the struggle to communicate, freely network with whomever they want, see highly successful deaf adults in action, learn from many role models. No feelings of guilt for not understanding or feelings of shame for being different. Got a question for the professor outside of class? No problem, just stop by his/her office to ask and you’ll be on your way in a matter of minutes with the information you need. No “did I understand her correctly?” Or “I don’t want to bother him with my question because he is obviously uncomfortable with me.” Etc.
    The sum total of this experience is that Gallaudet students at long last learn to see themselves as fully and equally valued citizens, with much to contribute. Armed with this knowledge, they are better equipped to go out into the world and tackle the inevitable hurdles that hearing society puts in their path.
    What makes this wonderfully full access possible? ASL. Nowhere else in the world can a college student as be immersed in a full-fledged language tailored especially for visual communicators. Even NTID/RIT does not match the level of language access at Gallaudet. This does not mean that those with an oral background are excluded from Gallaudet. They are welcome – and those who benefit the most are the ones who recognize the value of ASL as a full-fledged visual language and take the time to learn it. I have met countless people who arrived at Gallaudet knowing very little ASL and graduated fluent in ASL, grateful for the full communication access it finally gave them.
    The oral approach works for a select few, such as yourself. But the truth is, there are many, many oral failures. Many never even go to college because they didn’t get enough language exposure in their early years and thus become developmentally delayed. ASL is the great equalizer, because it gives anyone who can see (or feel, as with the DeafBlind) the opportunity to communicate fully, regardless of hearing status.
    Jane Fernandes does not recognize ASL as an core value of Gallaudet – simply as an incidental value. She herself has a very low level of ASL fluency (If I had to guess, I would say 4th, 5th grade). She calls herself the “president of the future” and based on her comments, that future includes downplaying the importance of ASL and allowing the Gallaudet community to be divided up into different communication camps – what she sees as becoming more “inclusive”. Paradoxically, if her vision comes true, then Gallaudet will become non-inclusive, as the ASL-using students are once again excluded from conversations happening in non-visual modes. This is why I instead think of her as a “president of the past” – all the way back to the infamous Milan conference of 1880, which banned sign language from schools and introduced the Dark Ages for deaf education in the USA. (Deaf teachers lost their jobs immediately and anecdotal evidence indicates deaf literacy rates plummeted).
    What I especially don’t get is why she wants to turn Gallaudet into something it is not. As I understand it, deaf people come to Gallaudet precisely because ASL is used on the entire campus. That’s the true unifying factor. If oral deaf people do not want to learn ASL, that is their choice. That also means they have the choice of any other college in the USA, because spoken English is used at each and every one of them. Why do they need or even want to come to Gallaudet if they don’t want to use ASL?
    A few months ago, a local deaf high school competed in an academic bowl sponsored by Gallaudet. Their coach was a hearing teacher who signs ASL. Jane Fernandes was at the event, and I later learned that she went up to the hearing teacher, with the deaf high school kids all around, and proceeded to talk with him using only spoken English – even though she knew full well that the teacher could sign. This was extremely rude to the students – and not to mention the deaf adults – around them because they were being excluded from the conversation. It was also a lost learning opportunity for the students, because had they been hearing, they would have received incidental information about how to talk with an important college official.
    To me, that incident is a prime example of how Jane Fernandes does not view deaf people as her equals unless they are able to lipread and use their voice in the same way as she does. This is a very elitist view and unfairly excludes a very large percentage of the Gallaudet student body, alumni, and faculty.
    The faculty, students, and alumni know this about her. Yet the Board of Trustees did not heed their concerns. They ignored the warnings about 1) her disregard for the core value of Gallaudet University and 2) her many leadership failings and fear-mongering ways. Is there any wonder there was such a big outcry?
    I disagree that there would have been a protest if another candidate had been selected. None of them were as much hated as JKF. Even before I. King Jordan announced his retirement, people were already saying, please God, NOT Jane Fernandes as the next president!

  1. Alicia, you’re absolutely right about everything you said.
    That’s why I follow the school closely even though I’m removed from the Deaf culture. I respect the school and what it does for others. I do care and that’s why I am trying to understand both sides.
    Re: Fernades – Wow! I can’t believe not one reporter has reported anything like this. I’ve seen some high level “not respected by students” and “cold.” But that hardly represents what you’ve got to say here. It does sound like she is trying to do a 180. Even I think it’s wrong. Gallaudet is doing well and I’m all for growing Gallaudet for tomorrow — but this isn’t the way.
    Even I know that it’s rude to speak in a roomful of deaf people when you know sign language. That’s akin to someone covering her mouth when she talks to someone else and I’m there.
    How in the world did the board not see this? That’s what makes this perplexing. It sounds like the board doesn’t reflect the student body.
    After reading your input, I understand.

    • Alicia on May 14, 2006 at 11:32 am
    • Reply

    Meryl, thank you for encouraging honest discussions on your blog. That’s one major reason I keep coming back, because I greatly appreciate your interest in having balanced discussions. And your patience with my long-winded comments. 🙂
    I agree, it’s amazing that reporters have not really gone in depth about those issues. But I guess the media has a tendency to look for the easy sound bites. This isn’t an easy sound bite, because it involves digging through many layers of history and prejudice. Beyond that, I do think that there are several likely reasons that this wasn’t reported on much:
    1) Simple logistics. Gallaudet has a well-established media contact system. Reporters immediately know how to get quotes from the administration. The newly formed FSSA and other groups don’t have as much experience with the media and understandably did not know all the tricks on how to make it easy for reporters. Just a few days ago they added a “Media Contact” to their site after being advised to do so. This is not a criticism, just the nature of people new to media relations learning the ropes along the way.
    2) Lack of an unified message that resonates with the general public. Within our community, we have long had standardized ways of discussing this issue, using phrases like “deaf culture”, “deaf pride”, “preserving ASL”, etc. Because we’ve actually lived it, we understand. But like you said, those are high-level concepts – and in large part meaningless to the general public. To people who are not deaf and who have not seen firsthand the benefits of having full visual communication through ASL, those phrases can sound trivial and even separatist (with all the negative connotations of Waco, Jim Jones, Heaven’s Gate, etc.). Worse, those concepts may even become threatening to some (not all) people with hearing loss who have fought for a long time to live without using ASL. I think this may be applicable to Fernandes, seeing as she is still not fluent in ASL after over a decade in this community.
    Anyway, I think the lack of an unified external message is a big part of why the news stories had a mishmash of attempts to convey this, such as “she’s not deaf enough” and “she’s not deaf-centric” etc. Unfortunately the administration exploited this to their advantage (and in the process did the entire deaf community a great disservice by making us sound petty). It would also explain why the FSSA attempted to focus on something more easily explainable – possible flaws in the search process.
    3) Human nature. The vast majority of reporters use spoken English. Naturally they’re going to feel a bit uncomfortable trying to communicate with those who primarily use a different language – and even with those who do use spoken English but may sound “different”. I do think many reporters gave it an honest effort, but it’s just human nature to feel a bit of discomfort around languages you don’t understand. Even if they talk with a hearing person, if they’re surrounded by people speaking a different language, that’s bound to still affect their comfort level and possibly their ability to understand the issues as deeply.
    As with #1, this is not a criticism but just an observation of human nature. I’m pretty curious about how the Washington Post was able to report such balanced information – do they have someone on their staff who has a lot of experience with deaf people?
    In regards to the BoT not heeding the concerns – I too am very perplexed. I think there’s a lot more going on politically that’s not public information. Another thing is that many of the BoT members seem to share similar values as JKF. Cecilia May Baldwin, who resigned, announced the new Gallaudet president in quite awkward ASL, probably in part because she felt the need to use her voice at the same time.
    Brenda Bruggemann, the new acting chair, seems to be completely oral and have a very “medical” view of deafness, as you can see from the video on this page:
    Perhaps tellingly, about halfway through the video you see a book cover on her desk that literally shows an ear in a box – which is how the word “audism” is signed in ASL. (Definition of audism: )
    Still, I can only speculate. Tom Humphries is a very respected researcher fluent in ASL and in fact coined the word “audism”. I’m not sure what is going on with him and at least one other board member (Ben Soukup) who may better understand ASL as a core value of Gallaudet. Are they outnumbered or do they have their hands tied for some reason? I guess we have to wait and see.

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