Wednesday, November 1, 2006

A Question of Relevance

University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small. ~ Henry Kissinger

The mob got its way: Jane Fernandes will not become president of Gallaudet University.

I use the term “mob” because that's what the protesters had become. They had blocked access to the school and refused all attempts to negotiate. All that mattered was that Ms. Fernandes' appointment be rescinded. In the articles I read, I had a hard time finding out what exactly was supposed to be so wrong about this woman. I read about her assessment that some at Gallaudet thought she wasn't “deaf enough” because she was a lip reader who didn't learn American Sign Language until she was 23. That seemed a pretty lame excuse, so I was intrigued by the information in the article cited in the first paragraph.
  • Ms. Fernandes is currently university provost. Students and faculty accused her of being “divisive and ineffectual” in her leadership role.
  • She had wanted to “reach out to the broader population of deaf and hard-of-hearing students”, the vast majority of which attend conventional schools.
  • Gallaudet has serious problems.
That last is in the form of decreasing enrollment, a rating of “ineffectual” from the Office of Management and Budget (the school receives over $100 million of federal funding every year), and a graduation rate of under 50%. That's Trouble, with a capitol “T”, which rhymes with “G” and that stands for “Gone”, which is what Gallaudet will be if current trends continue.

Meanwhile, in a sort of “Lord of the Flies” scene, students and faculty were celebrating their ability to bring the University to its knees, with no apparent direction of their own except to defend “deaf culture”, which sounds suspiciously like elitism.

Who would imagine that someone would treat deafness as a cultural element?

This sort of nonsense is nothing new for the students and faculty of Gallaudet. In 1988, they forced a new president out (interestingly also a female) out after a week, because she was not deaf. That brought in current president I. King Jordan, who has been unflaggingly supportive of Ms. Fernandes. I suspect that he was having flashbacks.

The trustees statement said, “Now is the time for healing.” The protesters said, “Her resignation is not the end.” Basically, while making statements about the need for the search process to be “fair, equitable, transparent, and diverse”, they're really saying, “You won't appoint anyone we don't like. And we're not going to tell you what that is until you appoint someone.”

There's an interesting parallel between Gallaudet and Randolph-Macon Women's College. You may recall, if you're are that 2/3 of a regular reader that I have, that RMWC, a women-only school, voted to begin admitting men. As at Gallaudet, there were howls of protest, replete with demonstrations and comments like this one: “115 years of women can't be wrong.” Right, and 200 years of slave-owners couldn't have been wrong, either.

At least at RMWC, there wasn't an indication that the faculty was opposing the change, but both student bodies share the same blinkered attitude toward society. The thrust of the last 100 years has been to try to make society more inclusive, despite the ongoing attempts of racists, sexists, and generally intolerant people to thwart the efforts.

The disabled and minorities have been trying to get their piece of the American Dream, to be regarded first as “people” and secondarily as black, female, or disabled. That's why places like Gallaudet and Randolph-Macon are withering; they are anachronisms. They're better than the segregated institutions of years past only because they're now an option, not the only choice. It's because there are other options that they are failing.

RMWC has recognized that they need to recognize the existence of the real world and may succeed. Gallaudet tried and was rebuffed by its own students for whatever real and imagined reasons they may have. What's worse is that Galludet's faculty is fighting change as much as the students (one might suspect that there was considerable encouragement of the student protesters by at least some faculty members). The very people who should be forward-looking are choosing to turn their backs just as some RMWC protesters did.

Perhaps the faculty is enjoying the 100 million taxpayer dollars they receive each year. If they continue marginalizing the school, attempting to exclude those who are “not deaf enough”, they are liable to find themselves facing a public that questions their relevance and the relevance of the entire University. After all, if the majority of students don't graduate, that's an indictment of those faculty members and of the school itself.

The next time the school is shut down, it may not be done by the students.

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