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Transcript: Gallaudet's President Struggles with Protests

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Host: At Gallaudet University, protests grew today as students blocked all entrances to the campus, forcing the cancellation of classes and mid-term exams. Gallaudet is a unique school that educates deaf students in Washington, D.C. And it's current president, I. King Jordan, is a legendary figure in Deaf history. But he's angered the protesters with his strong support for the woman who—last spring—was named to succeed him, when he retires at the end of this semester. NPR's Joseph Shapiro has more:

Joe Shapiro, reporter: There's a history of protest at Gallaudet. Almost 19 years ago, in 1988, students at Gallaudet demanded that the president of their school be deaf. They shut down campus. And forced the naming of the first deaf president in the school's history.

That man was the popular Gallaudet dean, I. King Jordan. The night he was named, the first thing he did was meet with a roomful of adoring students.

King Jordan: And I must give the highest praise to the students of Gallaudet for showing exactly how even now how one can seize an idea with such force that it becomes a reality.

Shapiro: It's glorious history for Deaf people.

Students: King, King, King.

Shapiro: But ancient history for many students at Gallaudet today. Most were babies in 1988.

This semester is Jordan's last as president. It was supposed to be a celebration. But it hasn't turned out that way.

Students: booing

Shapiro: Last week an art gallery was renamed for Jordan's wife Linda. She's an artist and expanded arts programs on campus. King and Linda Jordan brought their children and 9-year-old grandson to the dedication.

But protesters came, too, carrying a black coffin with the word JUSTICE painted on. Jordan says one protester poured orange juice on him. And they jeered Linda Jordan when she was introduced.

Unknown woman: One way we can show our appreciation. is by naming this gallery in her honor.

Students: booing

Shapiro: King Jordan is a gregarious man, known for his big, white smile. But after months of protests, there's a sadness in his eyes.

Jordan: Oh I am hurt. I'm deeply, deeply, deeply hurt. I've been at Gallaudet for 40 years. I came in as a freshman in 1966. I love Gallaudet. I really, really cherish, value the students. Even those who disagree with me.

Shapiro: By just about anyone's measure, Jordan's been a highly successful president. This is a tiny university. Just eleven hundred students. But the campus is filled with new, gleaming red brick buildings—-thanks to Jordan's fundraising. The newest will use cutting-edge architecture for Deaf people. Glass elevators, rounded hallways. So that people can Sign to each other from far away.

But right now, the main classroom building is shut down.

Shapiro: After the protests at the dedication ceremonies last week, students came here and took it over.

Ryan Commerson is one of the student leaders.

Commerson: When I was a kid, I was amazed at the concept that there could be a deaf president.

Shapiro: He signs. An interpreter speaks. Commerson says when Jordan asked students this week to end to the protest and reopen the main classroom building—many students resented it.

Commerson: They feel betrayed. He tried to stop us from protesting and protesting is what got him in the position he's in, in the first place.

Shapiro: What the protesters want is to stop Jane Fernandes from becoming the next president. The board of trustees chose her last May. Fernandes is an experienced Gallaudet administrator, first hired by Jordan. He's become her most vocal supporter. Jordan says she has the ability to bring the school together.

But many students and faculty find her cold. They say she's not identified enough with Deaf culture. They question her leadership in the past. Like whether Fernandes or Jordan have done enough to hire professors who are better at Signing.

Jordan says it's not always easy to find good teachers who are also excellent signers.

When he was a student here 40 years ago, almost no professors—hearing or Deaf—could sign fluently.

Jordan: Now there are many deaf professors and many hearing who can sign fluently. Of course there are still professors who are still learning to sign. And all of us want to see that continue to improve.

Shapiro: In some ways, Jordan's a victim of his own success. Students expect more today. And it was Jordan who raised those expectations. Just by being the symbolic first Deaf president at Gallaudet, Jordan showed Deaf students that they could do far more than the traditional kinds of jobs—running noisy machinery or teaching Deaf kids.

Nor do Deaf students have to go to Gallaudet anymore. Federal disability law now requires all universities to provide sign language interpreters. King Jordan was key in getting Congress to pass that law.

It's not even clear what percentage of students and faculty support the protest. But for now, the university remains shut down.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR news, Washington.