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.
Recent advances in medical technology make it likely, however, that future Gallaudet students may be more inclined to try to assimilate in the hearing world.
Medicine has made huge strides with cochlear implants -- electronic devices that can help provide a sense of sound to those with serious hearing problems. When a majority of deaf students at Gallaudet make use of this new technology, some students and faculty may worry about what may become of deaf culture and sign language.
"They may be afraid of changes that are coming," Fernandes says. "And I really need to reach out to people and express that I am more than willing to work with them."
But many here do not believe that Fernandes is capable of such reaching out. "The community is very divided," said second-year student Christopher Corrigan, known as the mayor of "Tent City," the lawn-turned-campground where many protestors reside.
"Her approach is very inappropriate," Corrigan said. "Her thoughts, her philosophy about working with a diverse group of students is not appropriate. We want someone who can lead us. Who can unite us together."