Image: Students celebrate
Leslie E. Kossoff  /  AP
Gallaudet University students, staff and alumni celebrate outside Fowler Hall after the board made its decision.
updated 10/29/2006 10:40:28 PM ET 2006-10-30T03:40:28

The board of trustees of the nation’s premier school for the deaf voted Sunday to revoke the appointment of the incoming president, who had been the subject of weeks of protests that at times shut down the campus.

The vote at Gallaudet University came after a daylong closed-door meeting that followed protests by students and faculty members, the board said. Jane Fernandes, the former provost, had been selected in May to take office in January.

“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 said in a written statement.

The decision “feels very good,” said student body president Noah Beckman, who helped lead the protests. Some students carried cases of beer across campus and shared in celebration with their professors.

In a statement posted on the university’s Web site, Fernandes said she heard the board’s decision with “deep regret.”

“I love Gallaudet University, and I believe I could have made a significant contribution to its future,” she said. “I hope that the Gallaudet community can heal the wounds that have been created.”

‘Unacceptable’
Protesters had said that Fernandes, 50, was a divisive and ineffective leader as provost and that she was not the best person to address a lack of diversity, declining enrollments and low graduation rates.

They said the board ignored surveys by students and faculty members during the presidential search that called her “unacceptable.” The faculty voted this month, 82 percent to 18 percent, for Fernandes to resign or be removed.

The demonstrators took over academic and administrative buildings this month, blocked campus entrances and forced the cancellation of classes. More than 100 protesters were arrested.

Fernandes, who has been deaf since birth, had refused to resign, saying it would hurt the university to allow protests to determine the school’s leadership. She has said that some people do not consider her “deaf enough” to be president because she didn’t learn to use American Sign Language until she was in her 20s and relied on lip-reading through much of her education.

She said she had become a lightning rod for those frustrated about changes in deaf culture.

“Gallaudet has been, is and always will be the center, the core of the culture of American Sign Language,” she said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “That will always be the core of who we are.”

But faced with declining enrollments and scrutiny from the federal government, she said, Gallaudet must reach out to the broader population of deaf and hard-of-hearing students, 81 percent of whom attend mainstream public schools.

Outgoing President I. King Jordan remained steadfast in his support for Fernandes on Sunday.

“Her vision and her plans to make that vision come to life would have guided the university we all love into a bright future,” Jordan said in a written statement. “In order to resolve the current stalemate, the board has deemed it necessary to steer a different course, and I accept their decision.”

More than 200 students and faculty members gathered outside a building where five trustees met with protest leaders to negotiate over whether student protesters who were arrested this month would be punished.

Professor Diane Morton, who joined protesters for a rally Sunday at the university gymnasium, said the work is not done.

Poor graduation rates
“The leaders made it very clear that her resignation is not the end,” Morton said. “We still need to make sure that the presidential search process is fair, equitable, transparent and diverse.”

Gallaudet, which receives more than $100 million in funding annually from the federal government, 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 diploma.

This is the second time in 18 years that protests have forced presidents from office at Gallaudet. In 1988, students rallied on Capitol Hill, demanding the board appoint a “Deaf President Now.” Elisabeth Zinser, president at the time, resigned after about a week in the position.

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