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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 reporting:

Eighteen years ago, the argument was clear: A deaf school needed a deaf president. This time, the protestors are having a hard time explaining exactly what it is they don't like about the choice of Jane Fernandes as president. She is deaf; she is a Gallaudet administrator; and even most of her opponents agree, she has got the skills to run the school.

Anthony Mau(ph) is one of the student protestors. He speaks through a sign language interpreter.

Mr. ANTHONY MAU: (Through Translator) She is an administrator, not a leader. Gallaudet made it clear that we don't want an administrator, we want a leader. We want somebody 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 a 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 is holding open meetings everyday at noon in the atrium of a campus building. One student tells Fernandes she is not a good leader. Fernandes responds through an interpreter.

Ms. JANE FERNANDES (Presidential Nominee, Gallaudet College): (Through Translator): My understanding, my belief, is that this is a hostile audience. I believe that most of this audience do not support my presidency, and I am willing to be here and step up and be with your pain and the truth of all of this and work through it, to give me a chance to do this job; give me a chance to let you see what I can do; don't prejudge me.

SHAPIRO: Most of the student protestors were babies or little kids at the time of the protest 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.

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

SHAPIRO: She is speaking now in an interview and speaking with her own voice. She was born deaf. She grew up reading lips and speaking. She learned to sign when she was 23. She thinks the protestors hold that against her, even though, now, she is a scholar of American Sign Language.

Ms. FERNANDES: All kinds of deaf people (unintelligible) during DPN. This is like the second wave of deaf identity politics, identity politics about who is deaf; who can speak for deaf people; who does Gallaudet belong to. This has nothing to do with DPN. And I'm sorry to say, I think 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.

(Soundbite of car starting)

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

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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