Gallaudet Protesters Meet with New President

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JOHN YDSTIE, host: Gallaudet, here in Washington, D.C., is the nation's only university for deaf students. For a week, students have been blocking the campus gates to protest the choice of its new president. The school's faculty may vote today to support that protest. There was a similar outcry the last time the school picked a president. Back then, students protested and won: They got the first deaf president in the school's history. The dissent going on this time shows how Gallaudet has come to hold a special importance to deaf people. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, reporter: Eighteen years ago, the argument was clear: a deaf school needed a deaf president.

This time, the protesters are having a hard time explaining exactly what it is they don't like about the choice of Jane Fernandes as president. She's deaf. She's a Gallaudet administrator. And even most of her opponents agree: She's got the skills to run the school.

Anthony Mowl is one of the student protesters. He speaks through a sign language interpreter:

ANTHONY MOWL: She's an administrator, not a leader. Gallaudet, we made it clear, we don't want an administrator. We want a leader. We want someone who can inspire.

SHAPIRO: College campuses can be unruly and divided places. Just ask Lawrence Summers, who recently said he'll give up the presidency at Harvard.

Gallaudet University is small. Just 1,700 undergrad and grad students. But because of those student protests 18 years ago, now to be president of Gallaudet is to also become a kind of president of the deaf world, to be its ambassador to the hearing world, and the symbol of what deaf people see as their own civil rights movement.

On Sunday, Jane Fernandes stood alone on a stage and took questions. To try to turn things around, she's holding open meetings everyday at noon in the atrium of a campus building.

One student tells Fernandes she's not a good leader.

Fernandes responds through an interpreter.

JANE FERNANDES: My understanding, my belief is that this is a hostile audience. I believe most of this audience don't support my presidency and I'm willing to be here and step up and be with your pain and the truth of all of this and work through it, if you give me a chance to do this job. Give me a chance to see what I can do. Don't prejudge me.

SHAPIRO: Most of the protesters were babies or little kids at the time of the student protests 18 years ago. But they speak of it as a cherished moment of deaf pride.

Jane Fernandes agrees that what's called DPN, or the Deaf President Now protest, was a key moment in deaf history.

FERNANDES: I'm sorry to say I think this protest is making a, maybe it's too strong, but something like it's making a mockery of DPN.

SHAPIRO: She's speaking now in an interview, and speaking with her own voice. She was born deaf. She grew up reading lips and speaking. She learned American Sign Language when she was 23. She thinks the protesters hold that against her. Even though she's now a scholar of deaf language.

FERNANDES: All kinds of deaf people unified during DPN. This is the second wave of deaf identity politics. Identity politics about who is deaf who can speak to deaf people. Who does Gallaudet belong to? This has nothing to do with DPN, and I'm sorry to say this is a shame what's happening here now.

SHAPIRO: There's no way to say if most students oppose Fernandes. Commencement is next Friday. And Sunday was the last day for all but seniors to pack up their cars and leave campus.

Some moved from their dorm rooms to the small city of about two dozen tents. That's where protesters are camping out, on the green lawn just inside the main gate to the campus.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News, Washington

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