October 31, 2006
Protests at Gallaudet
Posted by Lisa Fairfax

For people in the DC area, the news has been filled with the protests at Gallaudet University, one of the nation’s top schools for the deaf.  In the beginning of this month, students, faculty and alumni began protesting in earnest the appointment of Jane K. Fernandes as incoming president.  The protests related both to process (protesters claimed that the presidential search process was too narrow and not inclusive enough) and to substance (protesters claimed that Fernandes was not the right leader for the school). 

The protests included a march on the Capitol as well as some students engaging in hunger strikes.  In addition, the faculty voted that Fernandes should not retain her position and expressed a loss of confidence in Gallaudet’s board and its current president.  The protests also included students taking over a campus building and blockading the school’s entrances, which eventually resulted in the arrests of 130 people.  Through it all, Fernandes remained adamant that she would not step down.  However, on Sunday, Gallaudet’s board voted to revoke her appointment. 

I would guess that a lot of people in this area were surprised by the strength of the protests if not the ultimate decision.  Yet the interplay between the board and its constituents during the protests also was an interesting story about board decision-making—albeit in a more complex context.  Indeed, the board’s decision was met with jubilation by protestors and their supporters, but concern by others.  A statement from the board recognized these divergent reactions.  The statement noted that although the board believed the decision was in the best interests of the university, it understood “the impact of this decision and the important issues that inherently arise when a Board re-examines decisions in the face of an on-going protest.”  A spokesperson for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni was more critical, noting, “Gallaudet’s governance has proven dysfunctional not once—but twice.”  Between Fernandes’ stance and the steadfastness of the protestors, the board was certainly in a difficult position.  It is an open question how this decision will impact their abilities going forward.

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