Monday, October 30, 2006

Students of Gallaudet stood up and they made a difference

Surrendering to months of widening and unrelenting protests by students, faculty, alumni and advocates, the board of trustees of Gallaudet University, the nation’s premier university for the deaf, abandoned its choice of the institution's next president.
In an announcement Sunday night that followed an all-day emergency meeting of the trustees, convened at a hotel in Virginia far from Gallaudet's Northeast Washington campus, the board announced "with much regret and pain" that it would terminate the contract of Jane K. Fernandes, the former provost trustees named in May to succeed the outgoing president of 18 years, I. King Jordan. The board said it was acting "in the best interests of the university."

[. . .]
The victory of the protesters at Gallaudet represents a signal moment in the fight over deaf culture. It will almost certainly mean the next president must be seen as firmly committed to nurturing a deaf identity among students and advocating for deaf rights.

The above is from Diana Jean Schemo's "At College for Deaf, Trustees Drop New Leader" (New York Times) and too many are noting to list. Francisco and Sam were the first to note it. If you're late to the story, Sam recommended noting a piece from The Third Estate Sunday Review in full:

"The students of Gallaudet University are standing up"
High school and college students kick start the immigration rights movement in May. (And continue using their free speech though, as noted earlier, the middle-aged set can only scold. Possibly middle-aged spread has weighed on them more than even the waistlines of their Dockers know.) Across the nation, college, high school and, yes, even middle school students have the sort of talks about Iraq that our media refuses to provide. Don't believe the Desk Jockeys or Belt Way Babies, young people are standing up. An example of that is going on at Gallaudet University.

Do you know Gallaudet University? It's a college for the deaf and hearing impaired. It's been around for years. How long? When they started, they didn't issue degrees. That changed via Congressional legislation signed into law by the president. The president? Abraham Lincoln.

Are you starting to grasp how historically significant the college is?

From the college's website:

Gallaudet University is the world leader in liberal education and career development for deaf and hard-of-hearing undergraduate students. The University enjoys an international reputation for the outstanding graduate programs it provides deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing students, as well as for the quality of the research it conducts on the history, language, culture, and other topics related to deaf people. In addition, the University’s Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center serves deaf and hard-of-hearing children at its two demonstration schools and throughout the nation by developing, implementing, and disseminating innovative educational strategies.

Here they are noting sign language (pay attention to this):

Gallaudet University is irrefutably the world's expert on American Sign Language. Having a rich history of being a leader in deaf education for over a hundred years, as well as being the premier educational institution that identified ASL as a true and independent language, it is clear that if you're interested in studying either ASL or the study of deaf people and deaf communities, Gallaudet University is the place.
A major in ASL will give you a strong foundation if you're interested in pursuing a career in deaf education, linguistics, interpretation, sociology, or social work.

The "world's expert," "irrefutably," remember that. Why? Protests have been ongoing throughout this year. They have to do with the fact that 'powers that be' want to install a new president and she's not fluent in sign language.

As Susan Kinzie (Washington Post) noted, "The presidency of Gallaudet is a position carrying enormous weight for many as the symbolic center of the deaf community. Jane Fernandes, the woman in question, is also seen by the students as not very friendly. Faculty? "Last May, the faculty overwhelmingly passed a vote of no-confidence against Fernandes and the board of trustees, which supervised the search process, [Dr. Barbara] Gerner de Garcia added" (Ben Adler, Campus Progess). The faculty voted no-confidence again last week.Last May, Fred Hiatt (Washington Post) observed: "But others are suspicious of her conversion, of her not signing with native fluency and of what they see as her insufficient zeal in combating 'audism' (discrimination against the deaf) on and off campus." Take the last part, just the last, she's seen as possessing an "insufficient zeal in combating 'audism'". And she wants to be president of the first college for the deaf in the United States?

Fernandes doesn't help her own (weak) case by issuing statements like these: "Hearing aids are better than ever. Implants are better than ever. Progress in genetics is leading to the idea that you could choose not to have a deaf child. All that puts huge pressures on these deaf students."

Did you catch that? The one who would be president says: "Progress in genetics is leading to the idea that you could choose not to have a deaf child." If you were a deaf student (maybe you are, the community has a number of hearing impaired members) and you heard the soon-to-be president of the premiere college for the deaf state "Progress in genetics is leading to the idea that you could choose not to have a deaf child," would you be alarmed? You should be. Would a historically Black college or historically women's college allow be thrilled by similar statements from their own presidents-in-waiting? "Progress in genetics is leading to the idea that you could choose not to have an African-American child" probably wouldn't go over very well at Howard University. (Nor should it.)

She's tactless. What the students see as a lack of warmth strikes others as, at best, indifference and, at worst, cruelty. When that statement can tumble out while she's attempting to defend herself, forget sign language fluency, she's got a communication problem.

That's why students and faculty have rejected her. She may personally be the nicest and warmest person in the world but the way she conducts her professionally is careless and sloppy (and that's being kind). Her approach is a gesture and people are recognizing that she's giving them the middle finger. We're sure some lackeys of the left would argue that she's just using her free speech. She's welcome to use it all she wants. She's not welcome to represent the historical college. That's what the students are protesting. The school came about as a sign of progress (a real one, not the psuedo progress of 'choosing not to have a deaf child') and it remains both historically significant and pertinent to today. The post of president is symbolic and carries great weight. Students protested in 1988 to get the first deaf college president. It shouldn't have taken that long (over a hundred and forty years after the institution came into being). And it's too important for someone who, at worst, is out to water down what the university stands for and, at best, can't get her message across.

She's not fit. Just as every pair of shoes won't fit everyone, every position won't fit everyone. She's trying to squeeze her feet into pair of shoes that weren't made for her. And people should recoil in horror. This isn't acceptable. Fernandes told Diana Jean Schemo of The New York Times that it was "essential that I stay" putting the emphasis on her and not on the students, not on the college. It's a nice little ego trip, it's not reality. From Schemo's article:

Some deaf students and advocates disagree, saying they fear a weakening of American Sign Language at an institution that should be its standard-bearer. Deaf students here said that American Sign Language, which uses gestures to express words and ideas rather than specific letters, was easier for them to understand than other forms of communication that may translate letters and syntax that they have never heard and that are more difficult to grasp.Erin Moran, who is studying for a master's in counseling and was handing out fliers opposing Dr. Fernandes, criticized her for not banning students from speaking in front of deaf students, instead of using only American Sign Language. When that happens, Ms. Moran said, deaf students feel shut out at an institution that should help strengthen their identity as deaf people with a right to participate fully in the world.
"It's about accessibility," Ms. Moran said. "It's a cultural issue. We couldn't access it if somebody is having a spoken conversation. It all needs to be accessible."

While Fernandes places the emphasis on herself, the students are talking about the fact that her moves will leave students (who have always been welcome at the university that's been the leader in the promotion of ASL) out. Who's thinking of the college and who's thinking of herself?

Ben Adler notes estimates of thousands of students protesting October 13th (133 of which were arrested). The current president, I. King Jordan, has done nothing to address the situation. It's been ongoing since May and he continues to issue statements from on high, dismissing the criticism. Two votes of no-confidence from the faculty. Repeated protests (even in the face of arrests) by students. You can't dismiss those standing up. To do so is to render them invisible. That the nation's first college to recognize the deaf, created to serve them, now wants to apparently 'upgrade' to a new student body and leave behind their own mission is really sad.

And if I. King Jordan wishes to continue to ignore the pleas of faculty and staff, he might want to remember that what was created through an Act of Congress can be dismantled by one as well. The students aren't backing down. If Fernandes doesn't have the common sense, let alone good grace, to withdraw her name at this point, the situation will only get worse. At some point, someone who really cared for the university (even if they felt they were misundersood as the poor communicating Fernandes does) would put the university ahead of themselves, ahead of their own ego, and say, "You know what? I care about Galludet University. It existed long before I was born and I want it to continue to prosper. For the good of the university, I'm withdrawing." That's what a real leader would do at this point but as Fernandes has repeatedly demonstrated, she's no leader.

Students are committed, they are standing up, they are out there fighting for what they believe in. And though it probably wouldn't win an essay contest opposite an ass kisser telling pleasing tales to their elders ("Why doesn't my generation care! Only I care! What's wrong with us kids today!"), the students of Gallaudet University are fighting something that really matters.

posted by Third Estate Sunday Review @ Sunday, October 22, 2006

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