WEB EXTRA: Gallaudet students protest new university president

As GW begins its search for a new president, students at another D.C. university are staging a sit-in to protest the selection of their new university president.

Some students at Gallaudet, an institution for the deaf, have been protesting the new university president, Jane Fernandes, by holding a sit-in since her selection was announced May 1. Although students had to move out of their dorms May 6, they have continued their protest by living in tents on the campus.

According to the Washington Post, Fernandes has no plans to step down as university president despite the Gallaudet Board of Trustees’ head, Celia Baldwin and one of Fernandes’ top supporters, resignation Wednesday as a result of the uproar. The Washington Post also reported that the Gallaudet faculty expressed their discontent in a 93 to 47 vote of no confidence in Fernandes on May 8.

The protesters believe that Fernandes will move the university toward accepting more non-deaf students. At a school that is considered the cultural hub of the deaf community across the U.S. and even worldwide, this has enraged some students.

Much of Fernandes’ criticism comes from students who complain that she did not learn American Sign Language until she was 23. Only part of her family was deaf, which students say makes her less likely to respond to deaf-centric needs.

A deaf-centric person, according to Gaullaudet sophomore Mandie Aillon, is “a person who is culturally deaf – who grew up being deaf, uses ASL and knows what is best for deaf people.”

An issue that has divided students is audism, the self-segregation of the deaf community based on hearing status. This issue pits students against each other based on their deaf family heritage and support for the presidential change.

“There is a variety of students here – oralists, people with cochlear implants, people who use ASL – and we need to work together as a team,” said senior Benjamin Lewis, a supporter of Fernandes.

Lewis cited an example of audism as when Heather Whitestone won the Miss USA competition in 1995.

“(Deaf) people rejected her because she wasn’t deaf enough,” he said.

This, too, seems to be the reason students have rejected Fernandes. Not being a native signer put her at a big disadvantage in a campus where the first language is sign language.

Deaf culture has become even more apparent with the recent protests, said Jeff Hardison, a university administrator who has worked at Gallaudet for 11 years.

“It has preferenced one group of deaf people over another,” he said. “It has divided campus more than anything. The deaf community is white, and deaf of deaf families. You hear ‘we’ and ‘us’ but that’s not the case.”

Protesters see the selection of Fernandes as a movement away from deaf culture.

“Deaf culture is very powerful with American Sign Language,” said Nellie Noschese, a student participating in the protests. “It is very special. Most people really never understand what it is about.”

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