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February 13, 2007

Audio Interview: Gallaudet's Interim President Describes His Work on a Campus Recovering From Tumult

From: Chronicle of Higher Education - USA - Feb 13, 2007


Gallaudet University is working to heal wounds and divisions on the campus after a series of protests by students and alumni this past fall that led the Board of Trustees to rescind its appointment of Jane K. Fernandes, a former provost, as president-designate of the institution (The Chronicle, November 10, 2006).

In December the trustees named Robert R. Davila, a national leader in deaf education, as interim president of the institution, the nation's only liberal-arts university for the deaf and hard of hearing. Mr. Davila, who is deaf and is an alumnus of Gallaudet and a former professor and administrator there, will serve as the university seeks a permanent replacement for I. King Jordan, the longtime president who retired at the end of last year.

The Chronicle spoke with Mr. Davila through a sign-language interpreter last week about his plans. Hear the interview, in which Bruce Riley, a staff interpreter for Gallaudet, conveys Mr. Davila's comments.

Q. Obviously it's been a tumultuous time for Gallaudet University in the past few months. How you would describe the current mood on campus now that some of the media attention has died down?

A. Well, I didn't waste any time trying to jump in to address a variety of issues that awaited me ... and managing the university. And among the things I identified quickly as areas of need was opening communication and getting communication going among the variety of different constituencies on campus and also outside. Groups like parental groups, alumni, and so forth. And I decided to establish a weekly video blog-based message that is sent to all of our different constituencies to then report to them on all of my current activities and also plans. And it worked well, and I started to get a lot of responses from a variety of groups who then felt that the communication has improved. And so now I'm currently in the process of also working to establish a linkup with the faculty, with staff, and also working with a variety of different groups of people.

One of the issues that faculty brought up through the Middle States Association [of Colleges and Schools, Gallaudet's accreditor] in their report is that faculty mentioned they wanted a larger role in shared governance. So I've been working with the Faculty Senate, and groups of administrators and faculty people also, to then share information to invite their input on a variety of issues and plans that I'm developing.

And so I feel the mood on campus is very positive. And in the most recent issue of the student newspaper, which is called The Buff and Blue, it had pictures and articles about my appointment, and ... students then were asked what they thought about me and my arrival to campus. And I would say pretty much all of those people who responded, who were quoted, were very positive. So I think that's a really good sign. And I've never had any real problems getting along with students at all. They remain my first priority. So I'm going to be continuing with all of this and trying to build up the trust -- especially among the people on campus -- and trying to heal the wounds that are left over from the protest. And at the same time I'm also keeping an eye and my mind on the future.

Q. Some experts worried that if Gallaudet University gave in to the demands of the protesters about Ms. Fernandes, it would complicate their ability in the future to act -- if the students wanted something in the future, they could just protest. What is your response to that concern?

A. I'm very confident that I have an insight and also the experience and the leadership skills to maintain peace and open communication, and an exchange of views and ideas on this campus, and that would prevent such a protest once again. I have had almost 35 years of administrative experience, and I think I would be able to see those issues like that coming, and I think I would be able to gauge their progress and would be able to then negotiate that and resolve that to find solutions to issues that they were creating before it got to the level of protest or boiling point. So I'm comfortable that I can do that.

Q. Do you see any lessons learned from the protest that took place over the appointment of Ms. Fernandes?

A. Really, I was not privy to all of the protest issues. Remember, at that time I was retired -- I was an outsider looking in. So I really didn't know that. But I think it was not just one single issue. It was basically a compilation of issues and concerns from among the variety of groups on campus, and that is what led to the final result. But the lesson learned obviously is that we need to find a way to resolve divisions that are strongly held and opinions that are strongly held by specific groups. And we need to communicate with each other. We should be able to disagree without walking away angry.

Q. I understand that at times you have been frustrated with the coverage of the Gallaudet situation over the past few months in the media. Could you comment on that?

A. I feel strongly about that. You are right on that point. I do believe that the media was one-dimensional in reporting on the protest issues, and I also believe that we could have reduced the amount of negative exposure by presenting a variety of various views, but that did not happen. So I really think that it wasn't really good reporting.

Q. You made the decision this week to not punish the students who protested the appointment of Jane Fernandes. Why did you make that decision?

A. Because the students who were arrested did not really create any other problems other than blocking a driveway and refusing to move. ... It was a classic example of civil disobedience. Students were arrested, and they were taken downtown to the courthouse, and they were fined, and they were booked, and then they were sent back. So I think for them that was a lesson they will always remember for the rest of their lives. And I think they were exercising their rights to engage in civil disobedience. And it would have been a different situation if they had done that and created other damage and endangered themselves or others. Now some students that did do that kind of thing, in that latter group, their outcomes will be determined by the student judicial system. But otherwise, for the ones that didn't do anything else, we felt that the arrest was sufficient punishment.

Q. Thank you for your time and for joining us today.

A. Sure, you're welcome. It was my pleasure to be here. And I hope that maybe in six months, you can call me back once again so I can have much more, better things to report.

© 2007 by The Chronicle of Higher Education