365: A History of the Gallaudet Protest, Part One
Crossposted at Daily Kos.
Friday, October 13th, 2006: 135 teachers, faculty students and alumni of Gallaudet University were arrested in a protest. Gallaudet University is the only University for Deaf people in the world. The protest continues - at the front gates of the University, and almost a thousand strong as concerned alumni fly in and teachers and faculty gain the courage to join the protest. The protest is about many things now, as injustice has piled upon injustice, but it began with the selection of a 9th President who many felt was not appropriate for the position due to a personal history of the College as Director of Pre-College National Mission Programs and then Provost. How did it get this far? I will try my best to explain, using links to blogs and news articles, the journey from April, 2006 to today – although you could say the journey really began in 1988.
The Beginning of the Protest: May 2006
In May I King Jordan announced his impending resignation as President of Gallaudet University. Soon after he accidentally introduced Provost Jane Fernandes as President Jane Fernandes. Soon after that the search process for selection of the President ended.
No, I didn’t get the order wrong. This was one of the problems. Freudian slip or not, it made people nervous during the search process for a new President. Fernandes, then the University Provost for six years, was not the popular choice. It was reported that:
...a recent Faculty poll showing that Dr. Fernandes has an acceptability rate among the Faculty of only 36%, while the other two finalists had much higher acceptability rates of 53% (Stern) and 64% (Weiner)
There were also accusations of racism in the search process:
Did you honestly believe that deaf people of color and any reasonable person would agree with your “assertion” that race was NOT an issue when we find a candidate who met the most important profile requirements, has been in possession of an earned doctorate from a respected university for over 20 years and happens to be a person of color and yet is deemed inferior or not a better candidate than a white man who we believe should have been screened out in the very first applicants screening process for the simple reason he did not possess a doctorate degree for a position that absolutely requires one?
But much controversy specifically followed Jane Kelleher Fernandes.
Jane Fernandes came to Gallaudet as Director of Pre-College National Mission Programs, now called Clerc Center, a high school and elementary school for Deaf children on the campus of Gallaudet University. At the time it was the most progressive Deaf school in the country. Deaf children were achieving impressive levels of education in the school, equalling if not surpassing hearing peers. Dancers and actors from the school appeared at Presidential inaugurations at at the Kennedy Center. The list of misfires and terrible examples of leadership written by the Clerc Center faculty recently is impressive. Teachers and students left the school in droves.
When she became Provost in 2000 amid controversy that the University decided to circumvent the usual shared-governance search process involving the faculty in her selection, Fernandes was soon faced with a situation on campus: a growing movement to understand Audism, a form of discrimination against deaf people based on biological or cultural difference. (some of my own thoughts here. The Student Body Government in developed a set of mandates, based on research completed in the 30 years since the Stokoe revolution, about the use of American Sign Language on Campus, and suggested the need for better evaluation systems for faculty and staff on campus to achieve the fully accessible environment promised on the University webpage. This was revolutionary; while Pre-College National Mission Programs had been famous for a fully-accessible ASL environment, where all teachers could sign all the time (none of that funny business about having conversations right over the heads of children, which is not conducive to positive feeling or learning) this is still uncommon in America, where support for the new concepts derived from Stokoe’s research was still slow in growing, though European countries were several years into their implementation.
Students report that Gallaudet campus police and even some Professors cannot sign ASL fluently. The Audism Mandates encouraged the administration to determine the ASL fluency of incoming students and provide education on the job so that their skills could be bettered. The same would be required of students. Notice the emphasis on raising standards for staff AND students – a minimum proficiency level in both languages, and a campus-wide ASL/English mentoring program. This was community-based effort at change at its finest. It came about despite, not because of, the environment at the college, which has never chosen to recognize ASL as the official language of instruction at the University. The benefits are obvious – a barrier-free environment where the student can learn without a support system such as a notetaker or interpreter, where the teacher can be a direct model for the student. Not to mention the increases in safety and health, with a Sign-Language using medical staff and campus police. Some have compared the psychological effects as being similar to the difference for women, going to a women’s college, or gay teenagers at a special school, or prodigies at a school designed to fit their needs. Without these barriers, the students learn more quickly and their education is of higher quality; they can then bring a higher level of skills to the work force – as well as their unique perspective. (I realize this is a lot to take in: this protest has become the nexus of many, many issues.)
An additional concern about Fernandes was Gallaudet's failure at program assessment during her tenure as Provost, raising concerns about Gallaudet's federal funding.
When the Gallaudet Board of Trustees’ selection of Fernandes was announced on May 1st, 2006, there was a public outcry. At first people were bewildered enough to seem in shock; but almost immediately an organized protest formed into a tent city on the campus.
The Tent City has become legendary in the Deaf Community now. You must understand the interest Deaf people around the world have in Gallaudet University. Right now, 1000 Protesters stand at the front gate of the University. Tent Cities have sprung up in Deaf communities and Deaf Studies depts. at Universities around America and the world. This article on Inside Higher Ed. explains the reasons for the intensity of the protest at that time:
There’s no doubt that with the departure of Jordan, Gallaudet will assume a new direction. In the 18 years since Deaf President Now, we’ve shown the world that deaf people are in fact capable of doing anything except hearing. That’s the Catch-22. DPN made it possible for deaf students to go to any college in the United States and be successful. Gallaudet has stayed symbolic, inspiring those who go to Princeton, but not always attracting those same students. We have always been the best deaf university in the world, because competition is so thin. But we’re not satisfied with that. We want the best and brightest students, the ones who now have educational opportunities that were never available before. And that’s why we need a president with all the right qualities, not just someone who shares our deafness.
The faculty issued a vote of no confidence on May 9th but this was rarely reported in the media:
The Gallaudet University Board of Trustees’ announcement on May 1st of the selection of Dr. Jane K. Fernandes as president-select shook Gallaudet University and the global deaf community. Immediate responses from diverse groups and individuals on and off campus indicated a profound sense of betrayal, disenfranchisement, and powerlessness.The immediate response was: These are just culturally Deaf people with an agenda. The FSSA protestors were accused of vandalism and tensions were indeed very high. The FSSA responded with a statement that their group was diverse, but the meme took, and soon almost all the newspapers called it "a squabble about what it means to be a Deaf person." Fernandes was raised outside of Deaf culture and did not come to it later in life and does not use American Sign Language, but a code called SimCom which was popular late in the 20th Century before SimCom was generally considered to be a confusing failure in education:
Research has shown that Simultaneous Communication (often referred to as "TC" or "Simcom") compromises both English and American Sign Language. The user's native language generally dominates the other. This attempt to use two languages in two different modes simultaneously (like trying to write Chinese and speak English at the same time) presents a mixed and confusing model.
While ASL does have strong ties to the Deaf cultural identity, it is not the sole indicator, and here it obviously has greater importance than the administration is admitting. In the more recent protests in DC, for example, when being arrested, one man turned and shouted to the crowd: “I am doing this for my two children.” Students wanted to see progression in the leadership of the University also. For them, Fernandes, using an outmoded system, represented the past. This is also the reason for the identity-politics meme: one commonly-spread fear is that ASL-using Deaf people do not learn to read or write. (Note: I use ASL.) Also, Fernandes as provost had not responded to the Audism Mandates, which again was part of the fight for improved communication at the University. Many were sure the vote was rigged. Faculty resigned, particularly Celia May Baldwin over the controversy.
After the no-confidence vote by the University Faculty, Fernandes reiterated her commitment to not leaving; she planned to become President. The Gallaudet FSSA affirmed their commitment to the protest; although they negotiated throughout this period with the Board of Trustees, the general consensus is that the BOT did not address their concerns:
And, while we appreciate that the Board of Trustees recognizes the importance of a diversity plan to enhance our multi-cultural community, we are dismayed that they have entrusted the responsibility for facilitating this plan to Dr. Fernandes. Although Dr. Fernandes claims diversity as her strength in leadership, she has demonstrated that she lacks awareness of how her approach thus far has been controlling, non-inclusive, and lacking in transparency and equity. She has not only failed to unite the Gallaudet community, she has divided and severely hurt our community with her identity politics and inequitable diversity strategies.Although there were calls for people to do something about the issue, the stalemate continued until May 31st, 2006 when the University closed. The Tent City closed also: protestors went home, promising to return in the fall, despite some who said they should stay on campus.
I lifeblogged the arrests in a diary here the other night.
For me this is about many issues. It has ties, for me, to science-deniers around the country, to oppression, to union-busting (Fernandes encouraged the Clerc Center faculty organization and programs to disband), to shared governance, to civil rights inasmuch as communication access under the ADA is a civil right. Tomorrow will be part 2, as I try to put together the events of the last month at the University.