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Gallaudet’s board ousts Fernandes

- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2006

Gallaudet University's Board of Trustees voted yesterday to terminate the appointment of Jane K. Fernandes, whose hiring in May as the next president sparked months of bitter protests and divided the country's only liberal arts college for the deaf.

"We announce with much regret and pain that after serious deliberation in a special, all-day executive session ... we have voted to terminate Dr. Fernandes' appointment," the board said. "It has certainly been a difficult and trying time for our Gallaudet community. Now is the time for healing. The hope of the Board of Trustees is for our beloved community to come together to work for a stronger and better Gallaudet."

The decision from the board, which met at the Hyatt Dulles Hotel in Herndon, was called a victory by the students, faculty, staff, alumni and other supporters who in the past 3 weeks had taken over buildings, marched on Capitol Hill, barricaded school entrances and been arrested in an effort to oust Mrs. Fernandes.

"This is amazing, wonderful," said senior Nixo Lanning. "Now we'll get the right leader."

Mr. Lanning was among about 600 people who first gathered in the school gymnasium, then moved under the lights of the school football field to celebrate the decision.

Yesterday's decision "feels very good," said student body president Noah Beckman, surrounded by cheering students.

"I was shocked," said protest leader LaToya Plummer, a junior. "I knew this victory would happen. The only question was when."

Some students carried cases of beer across campus, shared in celebration with their professors and burned her in effigy.

The events that led to the ouster of Mrs. Fernandes are similar to those in 1988, when students protested the board's appointment of President-select Elisabeth A. Zinser. Mrs. Zinser, an assistant chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, resigned amid protests and was replaced by I. King Jordan, who for 18 years was the school's first deaf president.

"I am personally saddened -- for Gallaudet and Dr. Jane K. Fernandes -- that she will not have the opportunity to show Gallaudet and the world what a great president she could have been," Mr. Jordan said last night. "Now we must all put down our weapons of words and seek to restore a sense of community."

Gallaudet, which receives more than $100 million in federal funding, was rated "ineffective" this year by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. The report cited problems with the school's retention of students and its graduation rate; persistently fewer than 50 percent of undergraduates get their diplomas.

Protesters said that Mrs. Fernandes, 50, who has been provost for six of her 11 years at Gallaudet, was an ineffective leader and that they want to change the selection process. They were joined by alumni, staff and the majority of faculty.

Mrs. Fernandes, who did not grow up using sign language, had refused to resign, saying that critics did not think she was "deaf enough" and that she has been swept up in a larger debate about the future of deaf education, which pits emerging technology against a steadfast adherence to American Sign Language.

She also had said resigning would only hurt the university because the protests would have determined the school's leadership.

"It is with deep regret that I heard the board's decision to terminate my contract," Mrs. Fernandes said. "I love Gallaudet, and I believe I could have made a significant contribution to its future."

The protests against Mrs. Fernandes' appointment began after the board selected her in May. They stopped over summer break but resumed this fall and included the students taking over a major classroom building Oct. 5. The students left the building after two bomb threats, then proceeded to block the entrances to the school. About 135 students were arrested Oct. 13 for refusing to leave one entrance of the 98-acre campus, which includes an elementary, middle and high school.

Other protests included a hunger strike, a march on Capitol Hill and the takeover Wednesday of an administration building.

Protesters, who once supported Mr. Jordan's rise to president, turned on him, saying that he allowed the arrests and that his suggestion that mediators resolve the standoff undermined their cause.

Mrs. Fernandes was supposed to take over for Mr. Jordan in January. The board has given no indication about its next step.

"The leaders made it very clear that her resignation is not the end," said professor Diane Morton. "We still need to make sure that the presidential search process is fair, equitable, transparent and diverse."

Protesters had threatened to lock down the campus today if the board failed to oust Mrs. Fernandes.

"We understand the impact of this decision and the important issues that inherently arise when a board re-examines decisions in the face of an ongoing protest," the board also said. "The board believes that it is in the best interests of the university. ...Although undoubtedly there will be some members of the community who have differing views on the meaning of this decision, we believe that it is a necessity at this point. The board is continuing to meet to discuss transitional issues."

The board also said students who violated the law and the university's code of conduct during the protests will be held accountable.

"I was ready to be arrested," said alumnus Bob Morrison, 59, of Fremont, Calif, whose son, Brian, was arrested during the entrance blockades. "Now we can live our lives again."

This article is based in part on wire service reports.