Fernandes Vows to Fight for Presidency of Gallaudet Gallaudet University, the nation's leading liberal arts school for the deaf, has been in a state of crisis since last spring, when the school picked its next president. The choice of a long-time administrator Jane Fernandes set off a series of intense protests by students and faculty. Now, the end of the crisis may be in sight.
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Fernandes Vows to Fight for Presidency of Gallaudet

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Fernandes Vows to Fight for Presidency of Gallaudet

Fernandes Vows to Fight for Presidency of Gallaudet

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The board of trustees at Gallaudet University in Washington has called an emergency meeting on Sunday to decide whether to tell its new president to step aside. Jane Fernandes was named president of the nation's leading liberal arts school for the deaf back in May. She used to be the school's provost. There's been growing outcry about her appointment and last night we heard from the protesters.

Today, we hear from the object of their anger in this report from NPR's Joseph Shapiro.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: At the black, iron gates to the campus, protesters have hoisted a mocking effigy of Jane Fernandes. And when the deaf woman chosen to become the school's next president drives onto campus, protesters jeer her and bang on her car. So why with all of that anger would Jane Fernandes still want to be president of Gallaudet?

JANE FERNANDES: (Through interpreter) I want to become president and I will be president because I care very deeply about deaf education.

SHAPIRO: Fernandes signs as an interpreter speaks. Some protesters don't trust her, because as a child she learned to speak and read lips. Fernandes says when she did learn sign language, at the age of 23, it was a breakthrough. And that's why she wants to be Gallaudet president, to help more students discover the richness of deaf culture.

FERNANDES: (Through interpreter) I had to work very hard to learn everything that I did learn. I did not have the services and the accommodations that deaf students have now in their schooling, and I believe that deaf people deserve the best education that we can provide them. It's my deep commitment to deaf people, which is the reason why I will be president of Gallaudet.

SHAPIRO: Whether she will become president - the job she's supposed to take on January 2nd - is up to the board of trustees. They chose her last May. They've issued strong support for her ever since. But now they've called an emergency meeting for Sunday. And speculation on campus is they wouldn't do that unless there was growing sentiment to tell her to step aside.

Brenda Jo Brueggeman is the acting head of the board of trustees. She still supports Fernandes. And she explains why she and the other trustees chose Fernandes last spring.

BRENDA JO BRUEGGEMAN: She was the most qualified candidate. A university president is not a popularity contest. It's not an easy job. It's one of the hardest jobs in the country.

SHAPIRO: Brueggeman says if Fernandes is forced to resign - because it's the only way to stop the protest - then that would undermine decision making at Gallaudet for years to come.

JO BRUEGGEMAN: I don't know how if she were to step down we would ever be able to appoint a president. If, in fact, a group of protesters can control the decision, then that means you don't even have a process in place that would guarantee that you could do it again.

SHAPIRO: One on one, Fernandes is personable. She's got a vision for the future of a diverse Gallaudet with higher academic achievement. But she has made lots of enemies since she arrived as an administrator more than a decade ago. She shook up departments, sometimes pushing out longtime staff members.

Many co-workers say she's cold, distant and autocratic. Students say she's scolding, paternalistic and doesn't listen. Still, a lot of college presidents are not warm and fuzzy. Fernandes thinks some of the opposition to her is just old-fashioned sexism.

FERNANDES: (Through interpreter) I'm sure that if I was a man they would say, oh, he's a tough leader making hard decisions. And if I were a man, they would say, oh, he's obliviously very busy so he doesn't have time to, you know, be smiling all the time and talking with every person on the campus. Because I'm a woman, I'm sure that some of this does involve gender discrimination issues.

SHAPIRO: But that's not all she's got to deal with. A majority of the faculty voted for a resolution calling on her to resign. And students keep taking over buildings and blocking most of the gates to the campus. Fernandes says she's prepared to be president and always see protesters outside her office window. But members of the board of trustees will have to decide if that's the future they want for Gallaudet.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

SIEGEL: And you can read varying perspectives on the Gallaudet controversy. There's a sampling of opinion from the blogosphere at our Web site, NPR.org.

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