Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. made the sort of history last night that one never wishes to make: The University gave in to small minds and ignorance and bullying bad behavior and lost both stature and grace in the process.
Today’s New York Times reported the following in an article: “At Gallaudet, Trustees Give Up on New Leader After Protests” —
The battle over Gallaudet’s future erupted at a time of massive change in the deaf world, with technological advances like cochlear implants and more effective hearing aids being felt by many in the forefront of the deaf-rights movement as an assault on deaf culture and deaf identity.
The turnaround ends months of protests over the board’s choice that had rippled from Gallaudet to polarize deaf communities across the United States. It is also the second consecutive time that protests forced the board’s hand in choosing a president. Eighteen years ago, in a struggle that became a watershed for deaf rights, demonstrators succeeded in forcing a reluctant board of trustees to name Gallaudet’s first deaf president in more than 100 years in Dr. Jordan.
This time, protesters locked down the campus for several days and turned the university’s entrance into a tent city of the disaffected. Last week, the protesters had seized overnight an administration building that houses the office of the president. They were forcibly removed the following morning, with at least two students suffering injuries.
The New York Times article goes on to interview several student leaders of the protest against Dr. Fernandes as they express their surprise at the Gallaudet Board decision and that proves, right there, in the face of it and in the light of truth, that the students did not really feel wronged or know in their bones they were right.
The students would not have been surprised by the Board’s decision if they were protesting an honorable end for they would have known all along they were right and that the Board would have to bend to their desires.
Their response should have been, “of course they agreed with us” not “we’re surprised they did.”
Dr. Fernandes responded to the maelstrom attack against her character with calm and grace — two important indicators of appropriate leadership:
Dr. Fernandes had argued that Gallaudet’s survival depended on aggressively recruiting among all deaf students, and in harnessing any available technology to help them advance. While she said American Sign Language would play a crucial role at Gallaudet, she also said, in a recent interview, that she could never envision banning spoken language at Gallaudet.
I agree with Dr. Fernandes the future of Gallaudet will not be an ASL-Only campus. The University, and its students and faculty and Board, will have to redefine the meaning of Deafness in order to continue the culture and the mission of Deaf Education at Gallaudet. You don’t perpetuate a culture by refusing membership to those who wish to join or by bullying those who are destined to lead you in a new and better direction out of the past and into the future. Technology only moves forward and never backward.
There are less and less infants born Deaf who are allowed to remain that way mainly because their parents are Hearing and parents always wish for their children to be like them. You have a rising generation of infants born Deaf who are implanted with Cochlear Hearing Aids before they are a year old and they are not raised to use American Sign Language Only. Who will educate those Implanted Deaf Children if not Gallaudet University?
Under Dr. Fernandes that mission would have been served and solved. Now, with the radical ASL wing of Gallaudet winning the temporary day, the realization of that inclusive educational goal is uncertain. Many of the Implanted are Oral Deaf and they may choose to use ASL or not — but they still deserve an equal education and the natural place for them to explore and expand their understanding of who and what they are — is to attend Gallaudet.
If Gallaudet remains a radically “ASL Only” school then future generations of students will choose to go elsewhere and the University will gradually die on the Florida Avenue vine as its student population withers into nothingness at the hands of an advancing technology and the rising efforts of the medical community to “heal” deafness on a genetic level.
I warned against that unfortunate end in my Urban Semiotic article here titled, Not Deaf Enough at Gallaudet: Finally is Not Enough and the sad lesson the current Board and students and faculty failed to learn in their protest is this:
One of the hardest things for a minority culture to understand is the same history cannot be made twice. History only makes pioneers and always punishes imitators. There is an attempt to warp back to 1988 at Gallaudet, the premier university for the Deaf in Washington, D.C., as some of the 2,000 students enrolled there try to re-enact the historical — and successful — 1988 “Deaf President Now” campaign by erasing the appointment of a new president, Jane K. Fernandes, because she is “Not Deaf Enough” to lead Gallaudet.
I still argue the reason Dr. Fernandes is out at Gallaudet is because she is perceived to be “Not Deaf Enough” and the Gallaudet Board, in a cowering and clunky decision to remove Dr. Fernandes, proves once again they have no coherent understanding of Deafness and Deaf Culture and this time they were threatened by the bad behavior of students who would rather camp out in tents on the campus than attend classes.
The faculty dismissal of Dr. Fernandes is contemptuous in the utmost degree. The Gallaudet Board owes its students and faculty lessons and decisions that may not be popular, but are right, and Dr. Fernandes, a history-making woman, was the right person in the right place at the right time to blaze Gallaudet into a secure future.
If there are Audists and Audism, this shameful decision at Gallaudet confirms there are Deafists and Deafism. Janna and I discuss the issue of inclusion and exclusion in Deaf Culture in our new book — Hand Jive: American Sign Language for Real Life and exclusively available from Barnes & Noble Booksellers — and the topic is sticky and unfortunately insidious and pernicious and thus threatens the total demolition of American Sign Language as a living language and encourages the decay of a vibrant Deaf Culture when it is only protected by exclusion and containment for survival and expression.