School for deaf keeps president

More than one year after students at Gallaudet made national news by forcing its new president out of office, the school decided last week to keep its interim president for an extended period before seeking a new one.

On its campus in Northeast D.C., the turmoil, which swept the nation’s only deaf college, continues to have a significant effect on present-day policies. But Robert Davila, the school’s new leader, is making inroads in restoring confidence on the once-divided campus. Though it was an interim appointment, his contract has been extended until December 2009, and a spokesperson said there is currently “not an official timeline for a (new president) search.”

The nationwide controversy surrounding the protest forced the board of trustees to remove Jane Fernandez, then the newly elected leader, who is deaf but has been able to speak since birth. The board also replaced her with Davila, who is also deaf.

In a statement released to The Hatchet, Davila said he hopes the incident will help the school make future decisions.

“Surely, there are lessons to be learned from the events of 2006 – and the should-be-learned and are being learned every day – but these lessons are being used productively and proactively in continuing the process of being prepared for Gallaudet’s future,” he said.

Davila is the ninth president in the school’s 153-year history.

“My administration is committed to working for a truly inclusive Gallaudet where all people of diverse backgrounds are embraced and work together for their own benefit of the university,” Davila said.

Last year, students called into question Fernandez’s experience with deafness, as she only learned American Sign Language in her mid-twenties.

During the protests, GW students – including then-SA president Lamar Thorpe – traveled to the school to deliver blankets and food.

The president of GW’s American Sign Language Club, Russell Nemiroff, said a school that communicates through sign language needs a unique leader.

“At Gallaudet, the fact that most of the students communicate differently (with ASL) is something that the administration and its leadership need to be sensitive to,” Nemiroff said. “Having a president who can communicate with both the hearing and deaf communities is very important there.”

Erin Casler, a spokesperson for the university, said Davila has already made strides to ensure that he retain the student body’s respect.

“Soon after his appointment, Davila began to focus most of his efforts in helping the campus community reunite and to restore trust between members of the community and the administration, which was deeply affected during the turmoil of 2006,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Davila has established working groups involving students, faculty and administration to develop plans to move the university forward. He also has created an Ombuds Office – consisting of deaf lawyers and social justice activists – to help improve internal communication and to keep the members of the community “well informed about key matters,” she said.

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