- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The nation’s only liberal arts university for the deaf could lose its accreditation unless it addresses concerns about weak academic standards, ineffective governance and a lack of tolerance for diverse views, an education-oversight group has warned.

Gallaudet University in Northeast was rocked by student demonstrations in the fall over the school’s incoming president. The protests exposed deep divisions on campus and forced the university’s board to revoke the appointment of former Provost Jane K. Fernandes as president.

Afterward, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education said it was delaying a decision on whether to renew the school’s accreditation because of concerns raised during the protests and because of a 2005 federal report that rated Gallaudet “ineffective.”

In a harshly worded letter, commission Vice President Linda A. Suskie summarized the specific issues the university must address in order to retain its accreditation. The letter included a suggested reading list on governance at higher education institutions and said administrators might want to look on Amazon.com for other resources.

The letter is dated Jan. 13 but was distributed to the press this week by Brian Riley, who attended Gallaudet in the 1980s and was involved in last year’s protests.

University spokeswoman Mercy Coogan confirmed the letter’s authenticity and said the university’s new interim president, Robert Davila, had shared it with campus leaders.

“We’re working like crazy to address” the commission’s concerns, Miss Coogan said. “We acknowledge we’re in serious trouble.”

Miss Coogan said the letter reiterates what the commission’s team told Gallaudet administrators during a visit to the university last month.

In her letter, Miss Suskie said a June report submitted by the university was “dismissive” and did not adequately address previously raised concerns. Follow-up correspondence in October “did not present concrete plans that reflected current realities,” she said.

She described the current status of Gallaudet’s accreditation as “fragile.”

Miss Suskie did not immediately respond to a telephone message yesterday seeking comment.

In her letter, Miss Suskie said the fall protests, which shut down the university for several days, raise “concerns about the functionality of Gallaudet’s governance system.” She questioned whether the board was out of touch.

“The failure of two presidential appointments because of protests is a disturbing precedent,” she wrote. Gallaudet saw similar protests in the 1980s over the appointment of a president who was not deaf.

In the most recent protests, students and some faculty complained that Mrs. Fernandes was not the best person to address a lack of diversity, declining enrollment and low graduation rates. They also said the board had failed to consult with students and faculty members.

Miss Suskie also said Gallaudet needs a more clearly defined mission and might suffer from trying to be “all things to all people.”

The university must submit a supplemental report by March 1. Miss Suskie said the commission would likely decide on further action at its June meeting.

“Platitudes, unsubstantiated assurances, and defenses of past actions do not have a place in the report,” she warned.

Earlier this month, the Office of Management and Budget gave Gallaudet an improved evaluation, raising its evaluation from “ineffective” to “adequate.” The improved report centered on plans for increased monitoring of Gallaudet by the Department of Education.

Gallaudet receives more than $100 million in funding annually from the federal government. Its graduation rates consistently have been below 50 percent.

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