Sunday, October 22, 2006

Hundreds of Gallaudet University students marched yesterday from their Northeast campus to Capitol Hill, hoping to gain national attention for their efforts to oust incoming President Jane K. Fernandes and change the school’s selection process.

The students, including many with painted faces, began their march at about 9 a.m. and were joined by alumni, parents, faculty and leaders of the deaf community.

The students said they opposed Mrs. Fernandes long before the school’s board of trustees appointed her president last spring. They have become increasingly forceful in their message this fall — taking over a building Oct. 5, then blocking all entrances and essentially canceling classes until about 135 of them were arrested eight days later.

Classes resumed Monday, but students said the protests will continue until they receive a resignation from Mrs. Fernandes, who has worked at the university for 11 years, including the last six as a provost.

“My mom came to Gallaudet in 1970-something,” said Jayne Kennedy, a student and interpreter. “She met my dad here. I think she found her deaf identity here.”

Students, faculty and alumni continue to say Mrs. Fernandes, who is scheduled to take over in January, is an ineffectual leader who is unresponsive to their needs and concerns and that her aloofness during the more than two weeks of protesting has only reinforced their disfavor.

Mrs. Fernandes has said the issue, in part, is that her critics do not think she is “deaf enough.”

Dirksen Bauman, a Gallaudet professor, said school administrators have falsely portrayed the protest as a response to Mrs. Fernandes’ not learning American Sign Language until she was 23.

“That is a red herring,” he said. “It’s distraction, and it’s divisive.”

Mrs. Fernandes reportedly has said she has been swept up in a larger debate about the future of deaf education at Gallaudet, the country’s only liberal arts college for the deaf, and at other schools. Among the issues is the introduction of such technology as cochlear implants to improve hearing and whether to steadfastly adhere to the traditional sign language method.

Retiring President I. King Jordan canceled official homecoming events this weekend, which further alienated him from supporters such as those who marched on Capitol Hill in 1988 to oust the president whom Mr. Jordan replaced.

Students now say Mr. Jordan has not supported their cause and that he allowed the arrests.

Mr. Jordan, who has met with students throughout the protests, called the night of the arrests “one of the saddest of my life.”

Angela Sanchez, a Gallaudet graduate, yesterday distributed a list of grievances against Mrs. Fernandes from the coalition’s Web site, including one that stated: “Dr. Fernandes saw no value in the faculty governance system and the grievance process, which were both eliminated during her tenure.”

Last week, the majority of faculty members gave their support to the students.

“Many people have been complaining since before April,” said Christopher Heuer, an assistant professor.

Louise Gilbert, a 24-year-old student and translator, said the board of trustees asked for opinions but ignored them. The students have said one of their concerns was a lack of diversity among the presidential candidates.

“If we continued with an ineffective leader, Gallaudet would still be here, but …” said Miss Gilbert before pausing to find a word to correspond with a sign she was using. “… it would fall.”

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