Gallaudet U. protests shutter school for deaf

The protest is large and the message loud, but the scene silent. The students of Gallaudet University, the nation’s only liberal arts university for the deaf and hard of hearing, did not wake up to go to class Monday morning.

Instead, they roused themselves to a fifth day of shutting down the campus in protest of the board of trustees’ choice of Jane K. Fernandes as their next president.

That night, they received the overwhelming support of the faculty when a vote passed in favor of Fernandes’ resignation or removal from her position. She is set to take office Jan. 1.

On Friday, the students slept in. They crawled out of their tents yawning, hair askew and searching for a bite to eat. Slowly, they gathered by the front entrance behind a yellow rope, munching on donated doughnuts, soon numbering into the hundreds.

The resilient, yet mellow atmosphere that morning disappeared that night when police arrested 133 students. For people who communicate with their hands, handcuffs are particularly unnerving; cutting off their primary means of communication.

The controversy began last May when the board of trustees nominated Fernandes as the next president of the university. She served as provost at Gallaudet for six years, but despite her history some students and faculty do not think she is qualified to lead them.

“We knew she was our enemy well before she was elected president,” said student Brian Morrison through an interpreter. He cited Fernandes’ lack of cohesiveness with the student body as one of the main reasons she does not have their support.

Another reason for the protest centers on more qualified candidates, specifically minority candidates, who did not make the final round of cuts for the nomination, said graduate student Lizzy Urmy. The board passed over them without student input.

The faculty addressed this point in their Monday night meeting and voted to study if including students, faculty and alumni on the board of trustess would make a difference in the presidential selection process.

Morrison stressed the point that students at other universities can simply choose to transfer if there is a policy they don’t like. For the deaf and hard of hearing students at Gallaudet, there are no other options.

Current President I. King Jordon, elected almost 20 years ago amidst a similar setting of protests on campus, supports Fernandes and has consequently alienated himself from his students. The gap widened Friday night when he made the decision to involve the police.

“Blocking entrances to the campus is unjustifiable,” he said in a statement released on Oct. 15. “No one has the right to stop education.”

Jordan went on to say that the administration tried to negotiate with protestors, but that they refused to act in “good faith,” thus forcing him to call for their arrest.

The faculty narrowly passed a vote of no confidence in Jordan and the board Monday night. Other resolutions included no penalties for the protestors, to reopen the presidential search process and to have an emergency meeting of students, faculty and others about what to do in the interim, as reported by the Washington Post.

There are a number of students and faculty who do wish to continue with classes and do not agree with the protestors. However, even after the campus was officially reopened on Monday with the unlocking of the Sixth Street entrance, all students and faculty did not return to the classroom, but continued to gather in tents behind the main entrance and keep the other entrances locked.

Fernandes said in an interview with the Washington Post that the issue does not center around her, but rather on the evolution of deaf culture. She has said repeatedlty that she will not resign.

On Monday evening the protestors gathered over a barbeque outside their tents that grew in number over the weekend. The use of hand held Web devices, such as the Sony Sidekick, enabled students to send emails and post to blogs instantly spreading word of the their cause across the country and the world. As a result, similar tent cities in over half of the United States, Canada and Denmark sprung up in support.

The numbers gathered at the entrance swelled as the arrests and forceful reopening of the campus only strengthened their resolve. Dispersed throughout the crowd students in white t-shirts bore their booking number and on one shirt the phrase “I got arrested by I. King Jordan.”

Kat Roberts Jarashow, a Gallaudet junior and one of the protestors arrested, said the police did a good job with the arrests and thinks no one got hurt in the process. She began a hunger strike at midnight on Sunday to demonstrate to the administration that she and others have not backed down.

Meanwhile, the administration issued a statement Monday evening demanding the protestors open up both the Brentwood Parkway and West Virginia Avenue gates by Tuesday morning. They have not released a statement in response the faculty vote.

The standoff continues with each side resolved not to give in to the other. If Fernandes does not step down, can she lead a divided community?

Laurene Simms, a faculty member in the Department of Education, does not think so. “Look around,” she said through an interpreter while gesturing at the hundreds of students gathered around her, “it’s really beyond that point.”

Public Relations Director Mercy Coogan disagrees. “I believe if given the chance, [people] will be pleasantly, wonderfully surprised.”

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