Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Hearing From A Different Gallaudet Voice

Listen or thy tongue will keep thee deaf. ~Native American Indian Proverb
I received a detailed comment to my most recent commentary on the goings-on at Gallaudet University, which was followed by another post from the same person with a link to a very detailed open letter written by a Gallaudet faculty member, Dr. Robert Johnson (who, I note is himself a hearing individual). I thank the poster for that link because it's the first detailed commentary I've seen by someone on the student-faculty side of the issue. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in the situation at Gallaudet read Dr. Johnson's letter.

Having read it, I can honestly say that I haven't changed my mind. The mob won, and Gallaudet has serious problems. Dr. Johnson's letter says two things loud and clear: First, the administration of the university has a serious communication problem; second, if they did communicate, it is unlikely that the faculty and protesters (a portion of which apparently aren't even students at the school) would pay any attention to them.

Dr. Johnson is obsessed with the apparent power and genius of the Gallaudet Public Relations department. Allow me to say if the publicity I've been reading is indicative of good PR, I don't want to see a bad example. The obvious rejoinder to this is that I've been taken in by the clever subtlety of the PR machine. All I can say is that I was a student during the protest years of the 1960's, and I've seen schools handle publicity well and handle it badly. I know the diference.

Another one of Dr. Johnson's recurring themes is that the Board of Trustees should be more involved in the processes. This is a mistake. Auburn University is the classic example of trustees micro-managing. Not only did the board involve itself in coaching decisions in athletics, but their meddling in administrative and academic matters resulted in Auburn being place on academic probation by SACS. Gallaudet has enough problems without adding a meddling board.

He is upset that the administration and the board dislike the public airing of internal dissenting opinion. Surprise, surprise. Dr. Johnson should take a job in the private sector where such airing is reason for dismissal. He further complains that the school officials are worried about how Congress might react to such opinions. The school is receiving $100 million per year from the federal government. Without that money, I should think there is no Gallaudet, no school dedicated to the deaf. That should give anyone pause about airing dirty laundry.

When it comes to the shutting down of classes, Dr. Johnson sees no problem because they were only shut down for three days. I can't agree with that attitude for a moment. Shutting down an academic institution is just plain wrong, and for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, there is no justification for that action. If students wish to boycott classes, that's their right. To prevent others from going is just wrong.

Dr. Johnson says he saw no act of violence or intimidation (football players barring students from entering the grounds is apparently just friendly persuasion to him). Yet, he mentions President Jordan telling him of vandalism and intimidation, but Dr. Johnson made no effort to confirm or debunk the statement. This is disingenuous.

He finally gets to Dr. Fernandes on page 14 of his document. Basically, he decries her lack of qualifications because she has few publications, if any, in peer-reviewed journals. Her crime, aside from being skilled in PR, a hanging offense to Dr. Johnson, is that she is “a professional administrator.” He says the press has described her as a “scholar of ASL”, although I've not seen her characterized as such. He also seems to place the blame for the lowering of academic standards and declining enrollment at her door, then at Dr. Jordan's. He mentions that Dr. Fernandes championed a program for educational change which fizzled. Interestingly, he offers no indication of why except to say that, “she gave in to resistance to change.” From whom? Perhaps from some of the constituencies who feel that chaos is the only way to appoint a president of a university?

There's a line about a meeting between Dr. Fernandes and the faculty on October 9 stating that she face a “not-yet-opposed” faculty, yet when I first wrote about this in May, it was reported that the faculty was largely against her appointment. Dr. Fernandes was not a favorite from the outset.

Here's what I glean from everything I've read:
  • Gallaudet has some of the worst communication I've ever seen, and I've seen some pretty awful examples. Neither the administration nor the faculty are willing to talk to each other in a constructive manner. The students are caught in the middle of this mess.
  • Too many outsiders seem to be taking part in the mess.
  • If Gallaudet is going to appoint a deaf president, they are going to have a difficult time finding anyone with the qualifications Dr. Johnson wants.
  • The school is becoming so marginalized that deaf people are finding other alternatives for education.
  • ”Audism” is being used as an excuse for deeper problems at this school.
Yes, dear commenter, I did look up audism. For the rest of you, the term “audism” was brought into use by one Harlan Lane from an unpublished paper by Tom Humphries (for more information, look here and here). According to Humphries' original definition, audism is “an attitude that people who hear and speak, or have good English are superior.” Basically, audism is racism directed against the profoundly deaf who cannot communicate verbally readily; audists can be either hearing or deaf. The claim would be that Dr. Fernandes, Dr. Jordan, and the Board of Trustees itself is audistic.

Now, if, in fact, the administration of Dr. Jordan and Dr. Fernandes contends that those who can articulate clearly and read lips (or use whatever other means of communication is available) are superior to other deaf persons, then they are most certainly ill-fitted to lead Gallaudet. However, it is also just possible that those who are crying “audism” are engaging in a sort of reverse racism themselves.

What I see here is a great deal of fingerpointing with few suggestions for real improvement. It appears that attempts to initiate change are met with resistance by one faction or another (or perhaps all of them). It further appears that there is no give-and-take between the faculty and the administration. Each side digs in their heels, realizing that, as long as the Congressional funding comes rolling in, they really don't have to change a thing. The casualties are the students who came to the institution hoping to benefit from the culture, the opportunities, and the resources that should be made available to them.

As Stephen Stills once sang, “Nobody's right if everybody's wrong.”

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