HOWARD BERKES, host:
This was supposed to be a week of celebration at Gallaudet University here in Washington, the world's only university for deaf students. A new president was named. Jane Fernandes is set to become only the second deaf president in the school's 140 year history. But instead of celebrating, some students blocked the main entrance to Gallaudet, passed out petitions and held rallies, all protesting the appointment of Fernandes. NPR's Joseph Shapiro has been covering the protests this week and he says they are having an impact.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO reporting:
A few students walked out when Jane Fernandes' name was announced on Monday. Now alumni have flown in from around the country to join them in their protest, faculty members as well.
BERKES: Now, this is not the first time that students at Gallaudet have been rallying like this. In fact, you covered protests similar to this at Gallaudet 18 years ago.
SHAPIRO: That's right and that was a historic moment for deaf people. Students shut down the school the last time they tried to pick a president. At first, the board of trustees passed over all the deaf candidates and picked a hearing woman, somebody who had no experience with deaf education. And the students were angry. They shut down the school for a week, the Board of Trustees reversed itself and then picked a very popular Gallaudet dean, a deaf man named I. King Jordan. Many of the students who are leading this protest, they weren't even born back then or they were just babies, but they've all heard of that moment, when deaf people stood up to demand that the president of the world's only university for the deaf be somebody who is deaf.
BERKES: Well, Jane Fernandes, the newly appointed President of Gallaudet, is deaf, so what's the issue this time around?
SHAPIRO: Jane Fernandes was born deaf. She didn't learn how to sign until she was 23. Some students have cited that, that she's not deaf enough. But it's hard to say exactly what the students are objecting to. They say all sorts of things. They say the selection process was flawed. There were no minority candidates in the final round. And many, by the way, many of the people who object to her say she's very well qualified. But they often raise objections that are based on her personality. She's not warm enough, she doesn't say hi to people when she passes them on the campus, she's not inspirational enough.
BERKES: So some people may just simply not like her, or like her style.
SHAPIRO: I think that's right. Some of it, by the way, goes back to Gallaudet's winning football season this year. Gallaudet's played football since 1883. Some historians of football give them credit for developing the football huddle. That was a way to prevent people from stealing their signs. And they've had a lousy football team, I should say, for a long time, but they got a new football coach this year and they went nine and oh. And they celebrated after the last game they tore down the goal post.
Some students also were celebrating at a hotel nearby, and they set off fire alarms. Jane Fernandes was the provost of the school. She had been provost for six years. She disciplined those students, and a lot of students felt she was acting like she thought she was their mother. It was her job as provost to discipline them. But some people felt that she'd been too strict.
BERKES: So what's the school trying to do to get past these protests this time?
SHAPIRO: Jane Fernandes herself, has started meeting everyday at noon with students. They're trying to explain how the choice was made. They're trying to be open. And they're hoping that they can heal this anger, and try to come to some understanding of why she was appointed, and what she can do for the school.
BERKES: I wonder if you could help me understand something. You covered this situation, a similar situation 18 years ago. You've been covering it again now. What do these protests at Gallaudet tell you about the evolution of deaf culture and the sense of identity that deaf people have?
SHAPIRO: Well, first, I think it shows that Gallaudet really matters to deaf people. The protest 18 years ago changed the way deaf people think about themselves. It changed the way hearing people look at deaf people. One result was that deaf people have more choices now. They've got more opportunities. They can go to any university now. They don't have to go to Gallaudet. Interpreters are required by law to be provided at other schools, and that protest 18 years ago helped that happen.
So, deaf people today, they're trying to negotiate these new choices. They're trying to figure out when to be part of the deaf world, when to be part of the hearing world. They're struggling to define what it means to be deaf. And I think part of that means what qualities do we want in this person who's sort of our number one representative to the rest of the world and the deaf world? What qualities do we want in a president at Gallaudet?
BERKES: NPR's Joseph Shapiro. Thank you, Joe.
SHAPIRO: Thanks, Howard.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.