- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 10, 2006

Gallaudet University officials said yesterday deaf educator Robert R. Davila will be the interim president, a decision welcomed by most of those who attended a post-announcement reception.

“Today, the whole audience was elated,” said Mike Kaika, a retired public-relations employee at Gallaudet, the country’s only liberal arts college for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Mr. Davila, 74, a former Gallaudet professor and Education Department appointee under President George H.W. Bush, was selected by the school’s board of trustees from among three finalists, all of whom are deaf.

He will take office Jan. 2 for 18 or 24 months, replacing President-select Jane K. Fernandes. The board revoked Mrs. Fernandes’ appointment following months of protests by students, faculty, staff and alumni.

Mr. Davila grew up in California, one of five sons of Mexican parents, and became deaf when he was 8. He attended the California School for the Deaf in Berkeley, and learned American Sign Language and English. He graduated from Gallaudet in 1953 and returned in 1972. He spent 17 more years on campus, as a teacher and administrator, including the post of vice president for pre-college programs.

In 1989, Mr. Bush appointed him assistant secretary for rehabilitative services at the Education Department, the highest federal job attained by a deaf person. From 1996 to 2004, Mr. Davila was vice president of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, one of seven colleges of the Rochester Institute of Technology.

“I am honored to once again serve my alma mater,” he said. “I am fortunate to possess the energy, drive and dedication that will be required to lead our university over the coming months.”

Gallaudet rules prohibit interim presidents from being appointed president. They initially serve 18 months, but the term can be expanded six more months during the presidential selection process. Mr. Davila said he would be ready to retire again by then.

“Eighteen months is too short,” said LaToya Plummer, a junior and spokeswoman for Gallaudet’s Faculty Staff Student Alumni Coalition. “There are a lot of things that need to be changed. We want to give Mr. Davila a chance to clean up the situation. … We need to get off to a fresh start. He’s willing to sit down with us.”

I. King Jordan, who served more than 18 years as president and was the school’s first deaf president, is to retire on Jan. 1.

Miss Plummer and the group were among Mrs. Fernandes’ most strident critics.

They criticized her for not learning American Sign Language until she was in her 20s and said she was insensitive to the needs of students.

They also said minority candidates were not given enough consideration in the selection process. Mr. Davila is Hispanic.

Mrs. Fernandes, 50, said critics did not think she was “deaf enough” and that she was swept up in a larger debate about using technology instead of steadfast adherence to sign language.

The protests began in May after the board chose Mrs. Fernandes. Students and others resumed the protests following summer break. In October, they took over a classroom building, then blocked entrances into the 93-acre campus, on Florida Avenue Northeast. On Oct. 13, campus security and the Metropolitan Police Department arrested 135 protestors. The protests, including a march on Capitol Hill, continued until the board revoked Mrs. Fernandes’ appointment Oct. 29.

Ryan Commerson, a Gallaudet student who went on a hunger strike during the protests, said Mr. Davila’s vision of Gallaudet’s future was “outstanding.”

“He is articulate and committed to good intentions,” Mr. Commerson said. But “we’ll see if he follows through…. He must make sure we are united.”

The two other finalists were William Marshall, chairman of the university’s department of administration and supervision; and Stephen Weiner, a professor in the department of communication studies.

Beyond trying to heal from the protests that resulted in the arrests and the cancellation of classes and official homecoming, Gallaudet also faces the problem of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which last month postponing a decision to grant the university accreditation.

“Gallaudet is going under review right now because of the protest,” Mr. Kaika said. Mr. Davila “will be able to help us recover. I’ve known him for a good long time. He’s a good person.”

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