Is Deaf University President Not 'Deaf Enough'?

ByABC News
May 10, 2006, 5:59 PM

May 10, 2006 — -- Their protests don't sound like those on any other college campus, because many students at Gallaudet University, the nation's preeminent college for deaf and hearing-disabled students, have trouble speaking. But their message is nonetheless loud and clear: They oppose the board of trustees' unanimous selection for a new university president, the current provost Jane Fernandes.

Students and faculty opposing Fernandes cite many reasons for their opposition -- a belief that not enough nonwhite candidates were seriously considered and Fernandes' management style among them. But also lurking beneath the surface are questions about what it means to be deaf.

"We need a leader who we can look up to. A leader who is one of us," said student Leah Katz-Hernandez, signing through an interpreter.

The debates have gotten so heated on this leafy college campus tucked into northeast Washington, D.C., that last night, citing "aggressive threats" against her, the chairwoman of the board of trustees, Celia May Baldwin, resigned.

Fernandes, who is hearing impaired, is able to speak and didn't learn sign language until the age of 23. She did not attend Gallaudet, and earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Iowa. She also has a husband and children who have no hearing problems.

On this campus, where debates focus on whether there are enough college employees who are deaf or whether sign language is emphasized enough over reading lips, Fernandes says some do not consider her to be "deaf enough. "

"There does remain a core group that I consider more like absolutists who want a 100 percent deaf world," Fernandes said. "They are an important part of Gallaudet University -- they will always be an important part of this university."

The outgoing president supports her, but acknowledges the debate at hand. "People do think that it's better if your whole family is deaf and if everyone signs only," instead of learning to read lips, said I. King Jordan.

Approximately 28 million Americans are seriously hearing-impaired, but less than a million are estimated to know American Sign Language. That's a dynamic that's completely flipped at Gallaudet, a sign-language-friendly safe haven for many students who have felt isolated and discriminated against in the "hearing" world.