October 10, 2006

By Tom Willard
Editor, Deafweekly
Former Editor, Silent News and Newswaves

I have been observing and writing about deaf issues for some 25 years and I would like to share a few ideas in regard to the Gallaudet protest.

Each of the last two presidential selection processes at Gallaudet University has brought chaos to Kendall Green. As a result, I think we need to reconsider the way we choose Gallaudet University’s presidents.

The protest can be boiled down to a single issue. People want self-determination. I mean really, isn’t that what the American Revolution was all about? Isn’t that why we’re fighting in the Middle East, to promote democracy around the world? How ironic, when there’s no democracy in the heart of Washington, D.C. at Gallaudet University.

A big part of the problem is an out-of-touch Board of Trustees that seems to have no interest in interacting with the college community. They simply fly in to Washington and sign whatever papers are put in front of them. This group has demonstrated that it cannot be trusted with such an important decision as to who shall lead Gallaudet.

It must be very disheartening to be a Gallaudet student or staff or faculty or alumni, and be told to accept a leader that you don’t want, especially when you spent months making it clear that you didn’t want this person as your leader and everything you said and did was completely ignored.

What I’m going to suggest may seem radical, but we need to consider any and all ideas.

I would like to see all major constituents at Gallaudet have a chance to participate in the selection of the president, not just the Board of Trustees. The board deserves to have this responsibility taken away after the chaos it has caused with its last two decisions.

There could be a committee of 15 members - three each from Board, faculty, staff, students and alumni. Each group would decide how to select its three representatives. Each member would review every application and assign points to each candidate using a clear evaluation system.

The top 5-10 candidates could be brought in for an interview, after which a smaller number of finalists could be selected. After another round of interviews and debate, the members would then vote for their choice for president and the choice would be binding.

I don’t see how anyone could complain about the results when everyone had a fair chance to be involved. The present standoff results from the protesters’ beliefs that they were not involved at all.

My second suggestion is that there should be term limits for the Gallaudet presidency. I would suggest a limit of four years, with the possibility of reelection for one or two more terms.

Gallaudet is unlike any other university where the presidents can hop around from school to school and refresh themselves and their communities. A Gallaudet president chosen in his or her 40s could conceivably be at the helm for 30 years, and that’s just not good for any school.

It also shuts out many other promising deaf leaders who are not given the opportunity to be president at other colleges, and it deprives the university of the benefits a fresh new president could bring to campus.

It is a common belief that “power corrupts,” and for evidence of what happens when one person is in power for too long and does not have to answer to anyone, just look at the I. King Jordan administration at Gallaudet.

With term limits, if you find you’ve been stuck with a poor president, you can look ahead to the next opportunity to choose someone better (much as the USA is doing right now).

A Gallaudet president who has a limited time in office and people coming along afterwards who could look closely at what they’ve done would surely have incentive to do a better job than a “President for Life” who hand-picks and controls board members and answers to no one.

My suggestion for a resolution to the current crisis would be for Jane Fernandes to show true leadership and step down as president-elect and allow the search process to reopen following the guidelines suggested above.

But the protesters have to give a little, too, and I think they should allow Fernandes to remain at Gallaudet and run the $800,000 initiative we’ve been hearing about. I don’t think she should be a candidate for president again, and I think she should run the initiative under a two-year contract, after which the next president can decide if Fernandes has a place on campus or not. If not, at least she gets two years to figure out the rest of her life.

Protesters who want to run her out on a rail may be disappointed with this compromise, but they would get their two main demands and would not have to destroy Jane Fernandes in the process. You have to give a little in negotiations. If you don’t, you run the risk of appearing petulant, and the public may turn against you.

As for King Jordan, it wouldn’t hurt for him to move up his retirement date a couple of months. Despite what he may believe, Gallaudet will get along just fine without him, and October 31 seems the perfect date to end his spooky reign at Gallaudet.


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