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May 23, 2006

Future Gallaudet students mull over ongoing protests

From: Fulton Sun - MO, USA - May 23, 2006

The Fulton Sun

When students at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., began to protest the school's presidential choice earlier this month, a firestorm of questions circled the nation and dropped into Fulton.

Is new provost Jane K. Fernandes “deaf enough” to lead the university?

Is it a dangerous precedent for students to repeatedly force their presidential demands on the administration?

Will the protest fall on deaf ears?

Although few members of the hearing community are aware of the political struggle now developing at Gallaudet - the world's only university for deaf students - the Deaf community is keenly mindful of the battle taking place.

“What they're asking for is a president who is more culturally deaf,” said Missouri School for the Deaf senior Kyle Mengwasser, who will attend Gallaudet in the fall. “They say they need a culturally deaf person because Gallaudet is a mecca for the Deaf community.”

According to reports from the Washington Post and Associated Press, Gallaudet students were disheartened after the school's trustees named Fernandes to succeed president I. King Jordan in January. A central foundation to the protest is based on the belief that Fernandes is not deaf enough.

Although she is deaf, Fernandes grew up speaking and reading lips. It wasn't until she was 23 that she learned American Sign Language. Opponents claim they want a successor who has fully been immersed in the Deaf community.

Along with MSD student and future Gallaudet pupil Nick Wolfe, Mengwasser has been paying close attention to the protests. Mengwasser regularly converses with friends participating in the demonstrations and reads Internet sites discussing the events.

“I think they'll keep protesting until the administration meets their demands or they get tired of it,” Mengwasser said.

However, it seems there are many demands and many opinions as to why the students say they are protesting. Their accusations came fast and furious as they painted words on their stomachs, climbed stone gates and built a tent city near the entrance to the school.

“Fernandes is not qualified to lead Gallaudet into the future.”

“In the last few years, Gallaudet has had a bad reputation of seeing decline in deaf education,” explained Mengwasser. He cited a student belief that either of the other two candidates would do a better job of reversing the downswing than Fernandes - who is slated to be the school's first female president.

“There was no racial diversity between applicants.”

Of the three final candidates, all were white.

“Fernandes has poor rapport with the students.”

“Fernandes plans to cut theater and athletic programs.”

“Gallaudet was not forthcoming with the students during the selection process.”

The reasons for the protest are confusing and differentiating - a far cry from the last presidential protest in 1988.

Jordan became the first deaf Gallaudet president after students protested the school's first choice of a hearing administrator. However, according to an interview with the Washington Post, Jordan has said the presidential selection is not a “popularity contest.” He further explained that if the board retracts its decision, a dangerous precedent will be held by students over the school's governance.

“At first, the protests didn't seem right to me,” Mengwasser said. “I thought the students just wanted to go through the protests again.”

Although Mengwasser said he takes a neutral state concerning the events, Wolfe said he would have joined the protests.

“I'm very interested in going to the drama program,” said Wolfe, who plans to major in drama and photography. “There is speculation she will cut the drama program.”

Although the Gallaudet faculty has issued a no-confidence vote in Fernandes and the interim head of the board of trustees has resigned, school officials do not plan to replace Fernandes as the future president.

It is a move Mengwasser said does not bother him.

“At most colleges, you're not going to deal with the president very often,” he said. “As long as she knows sign language, I'm happy.”

© 2006 The Fulton Sun. All rights reserved.