Gallaudet University appears to be in meltdown as members of the school’s board of trustees resign at an alarming rate.
In two succeeding days, Sen. John McCain and board chair Brenda Jo Brueggemann submitted letters of resignation that referenced the dismissal of incoming president Jane K. Fernandes as their primary motivation for stepping down.
“I cannot in good conscience continue to serve the board after its decision to terminate her appointment, which I believe was unfair and not in the best interests of the University,” McCain said in his letter to outgoing president I. King Jordan.
McCain was admitted to the board that oversees the nation’s premier college for the deaf in 1995, partly because of his association with laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, a bill that he co-sponsored.
Brueggemann’s credentials are no less compelling. She has spent a lifetime educating and advancing the causes of the deaf, and her resignation also proves no less a blow to the institution.
The illustrious career of the current president – an individual with a hearing disability not inherited from family but acquired in an accident – may not have come to pass had it not been for vocal student demands to have a deaf president run the institution.
I. King Jordan was the first such leader of the institution since its creation in 1864. Perhaps because of his ability to directly draw from the student body’s experience of hardship, he attained unrivaled popularity in the deaf community.
Unlike President King, Fernandes was born deaf. But the student tumult results from the fact that she did not learn or utilize sign language until adulthood. Questions of her proficiency in American Sign Language have been part of the argument concerning her ability to lead the institution.
Fernandes’s parents – her mother is also deaf – explicitly chose to raise her in an environment relying on standard education practices and not on sign language.
The students protest this notion, despite the fact that it was completely out of her control. She chose to learn sign language as an adult and committed herself to a career that broadened the scope of such programs.
There was no rejection to Fernandes’s admission to the Gallaudet staff, or even to her eventual promotion to provost of the school.
With the current president planning to retire at the end of this year, trustees looked to Fernandes as an experienced replacement from within the administration.
King responded to student criticism of Fernandes’s appointment by suggesting that it is based on the perception that “she is not deaf enough.” He continued by noting that the debate appears to be centered on the question of “.what it means to be deaf.”
Students have countered that their objections stem partly from the fact that her diminished capacity with American Sign Language makes her less than an ideal representative of such a student body.
In May, when the debate over her appointment was still very much alive, Fernandes said the matter bore such consequence that the survival of the university itself more or less depended on whether she would be accepted as its president.
“We’re in a fight for the survival of Gallaudet University . It’s happening right now. It’s absolutely essential that I stay,” she said then.
New allegations surfaced Nov. 9 concerning possible grade manipulation and diminished academic standards at the school.