Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The story of Elisabeth Zinser may not be particularly well known, but a group of students at Gallaudet University would like incoming President Jane K. Fernandes to repeat it. In 1988, the University of North Carolina administrator was selected as the new Gallaudet president by the board of trustees. Of three short-listed candidates, she was the only one who was not deaf. Students responded with what I. King Jordan would later call a “student revolution,” which included taking over several buildings on campus, and the trustees eventually yielded and appointed Mr. Jordan, who became the university’s first deaf president.

Perhaps the success of the 1988 student opposition has emboldened the few current Gallaudet students who restarted their disruptive protests last week with the takeover of a main classroom building on campus. Since then, the university has twice evacuated the campus in response to bomb threats, was forced to relocate classes and may need to reschedule midterm exams because students staged a sit-in to oppose the selection of Mrs. Fernandes to succeed Mr. Jordan as university president. Protests first hit the campus in May, when student opposition was deplorably encouraged by the faculty, which issued a vote of “no confidence” against Mrs. Fernandes. The interim head of the board of trustees even decided to step down after “numerous aggressive threats.”

That Mrs. Fernandes grew up speaking and only learned sign language in her 20s is some sort of detriment, protesters bizarrely claim, because it shows that she isn’t, in Mr. Jordan’s phrase, “deaf enough.” Protesters have also charged that the incoming president was chosen in a selection process that did not include enough diversity. Contrary to the attacks that Mrs. Fernandes isn’t sufficiently deaf or diverse, her qualifications, demonstrated during 11 years at Gallaudet and six years as university provost, were impressive enough to win unanimous support from the trustees as well as the favor of Mr. Jordan. The trustees wisely reaffirmed their endorsement of Mrs. Fernandes during a meeting on Friday.

The protesters should realize that the 1988 episode was an anomaly, not a precedent. It is the prerogative of the trustees, not the faculty or students, to appoint the university’s president. This is not to say that no student can be displeased with the trustees’ selection, but their methods of expressing this displeasure are disruptive and harmful to the rest of the student body. Mr. Jordan’s effort to keep the university on the right track during this ugly experience is laudable, since the most baleful impact of besieging the main academic building falls on the students themselves. To move Gallaudet forward, the protesters and others who egg on the type of deaf-president-now tactics that disrupt Gallaudet’s unique learning environment need to start working with Mrs. Fernandez, and stop working against the university.

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