Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Sound and Fury at Gallaudet

The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins. ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

Back in May, I wrote a little piece that described protests going on at Gallaudet University, in which I manged to misspell the name of the school as Gaulledet, for which I abase myself. However, if you look past that, you find a commentary about protests going on concerning the appointment of a new university president, one Jane Fernandes. Students and faculty were, for reasons which were not very clear to me, very upset over her selection for the post, mostly because she wasn't their sort of deaf person.

As I said in the article, Ms. Fernandes was born deaf but grew up speaking, not learning American Sign Language until the age of 23. She is married to a former Gallaudet professor, who is not deaf, and has two children who can hear. She was opposed, according to one protesting faculty member, as not representing the deaf community.

Frankly, this sounded lame. I figured that had to be more to the story, but I found nothing more informative at the time. Ultimately, the coverage died down, and I lost track of the story until the other day when this brief story showed that things had not quieted down at Gallaudet. Quite the opposite, in fact. Things have gotten out of hand as protesters had closed the school.

It is still completely unclear to an outsider like me what the issues are here. All that is clear is that the protesters have no desire to negotiate, preferring to deny access to the school's facilities to students who wish to attend classes and to others who use the facilities. The rhetoric is hot and heavy, though.
  • “We will not let the campus go unless Jane Fernandes resigns.” - Noah Beckman, student body president
  • “The whole school is speaking now.” - student and protest leader Chris Corrigan
  • “This illegal and unlawful behavior must stop.” - outgoing university president I. King Jordan.
The irony here is that Mr. Jordan was installed as president thanks to another round of protests from students many years ago, calling for the school to appoint a deaf president. I sense a pattern here. The irony gets thicker when you consider that the faculty that, no doubt, participated in those protests, has pass a no-confidence vote in that same Mr. Jordan and in the Board of Trustees (whom the faculty probably never liked in the first place; trustees and faculty members are natural enemies). The vote doesn't really do anything except indicate that the faculty is ticked off.

I know a little about protests. I was in college until 1971, and, even though I was at a place where demonstrations were minimal, even we were not passed by events (see Radio Daze parts III and IV). Even if we had not had such activity on our campus, we would have had to be dead not to see the level of dissent on campuses around the country, brought about by the dissent against the Viet Nam War and the support of the Civil Rights movement. The most profound effect of student protests of that day was to shine a spotlight on the war and social problems.

When students were shot at Kent State, virtually every campus in the country boiled over, some just a heavy simmer and some completely over the top. In many cases, students demanded the universities close down, primarily so they could continue their protests without having to go to class.

At least, that's the best reason I can see now in looking back at it. Even Case shut down after a fashion. Students were given the choice of finishing out the semester (it was late in the term) or take a Pass/Fail grade on their work to that point in the year and go do whatever they wanted to. So the school was open, but students were given the option of ending their year. I did that so I could work at the radio station, since I was program director and we were on a 24-hour schedule. The university chancellor praised us for our work in squelching rumors, and I got to avoid taking final exams, definitely a win-win situation.

Most of the schools that chose to shut down didn't offer such choices; they either stayed open or closed completely for the summer. Looking back, I recognize that many students who wanted to continue going to class were deprived of the opportunity, ostensibly in the name of freedom of choice.

The protest movement had a clear target, focused primarily on the war. Despite that focus, it seemed that demonstrations would take on a life of their own, leading to building takeovers or outlandish demands that no school could sensibly meet. Ultimately, these sort of events petered out of their own accord. In fact, some of the schools that took the closure route did so just to let things cool off for a while.

This is not to say that the protests didn't have an important and often positive impact. But as time went on, many of them were simply “me-too” events featuring tortured rhetoric, weird mixtures of socialism and anarchy, mixed with a heavy dose of iconoclasm. Keep in mind that those long-haired liberal weirdos you see in films of these demonstrations are now your Congressmen.

(That has nothing to do with Gallaudet, but it bothers me from time to time.)

The Gallaudet protests have the feel of iconoclastic demonstrations that are feeding on their own momentum. Football players volunteer to block entrances to the university; protest leaders refuse any negotiation or attempt to find a middle ground; a “coupe d'universite” is declared. The captain of the football team said he would say to Ms. Fernandes, “Resign now. It's as simple as that. If you resign, we can move on with our lives.”

I'm sorry, but it's not as simple as that. A can of worms has been opened, and there's no putting them back. Ms. Fernandes is not about to resign; the students and faculty have burned all the bridges to a middle ground. The school is open again, but for how long? It would not be surprising to see the school closed again when Ms. Fernandes is to take over her post in January.

Ultimately, the faculty and students have got to come up with something more damning than Ms. Fernandes not representing the deaf community, or, as she puts it, “not being deaf enough.” In the olden days, demonstrators and universities would attempt to open “dialogs.” The idea was that if protest leaders and school leaders actually discussed the issues, some accommodation could be reached that would satisfy both sides (or at least, minimally dissatisfy both sides), allowing life to go on. Most importantly, it would allow those who wished to be students to be students.

No one has the right to block the right of another to an education, not George Wallace standing in the door of the University of Alabama nor a football player standing in the gate at Gallaudet.

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