May 11, 2006
Written by C.N.
You may have heard about student and faculty protests over the naming of a new President of Gallaudet University, the world’s only four year liberal arts university that is completely tailored to deaf students and for many, the cultural center of the deaf world.
Some have criticized the new President Jane Fernandes (who was the Provost of the university at the time) for being a weak leader or dissatisfied with her work and administrative style while she was Provost. But the most interesting criticism against her is that she is not deaf enough — she didn’t learn sign language until her early 20s and that no one else in her family is deaf.
The newly chosen president of Gallaudet University, the nation’s only liberal arts college for the deaf, received a no-confidence vote from the faculty Monday in a dispute that she said comes down to whether she is “deaf enough” for the job.
The vote, which passed 93-43, is nonbinding. The fate of Jane K. Fernandes rests with the board of trustees, which has said it will not alter its decision to hire her. . . .
Deaf education has been roiled in recent years by the development of cochlear implants and other technology. Some say such developments threaten sign language and other aspects of what they call deaf culture; others welcome such advances.
Clearly, I am not an expert when it comes to deaf culture or deaf education. As an Asian American myself, I am also very sensitive to the calls for respect, self-determination, and representation by a cultural minority group that is traditionally marginalized in mainstream American society.
At the same time, I am a little taken aback by criticisms that this new President is not “deaf enough.” It is one thing to criticize her because of her academic record and performance as Provost of the university. But it is one thing to reject her based solely or even primarily because she does not embody the absolute ideal picture of a “true” deaf person.
In trying to relate this issue to a field like Asian American Studies, I would also feel that it would be rather unfair to arbitrarily reject, say a Director of an Asian American Studies department or program, just because s/he may not be fluent in his/her ancestral Asian language, or because his/her partner is non-Asian, or s/he may be a multiracial Asian American. In other words, there are many ways to exemplify an Asian American identity.
In the same way that a person does not have to have cancer in order to understand the issues and be genuinely concerned about those who do, I also feel that placing these kinds of “requirements” on leaders can go too far and be rather arbitrary and unfair. As the article notes about the outgoing Gallaudet President, “Jordan, who backed Fernandes’ selection, said the current protest reflects ‘identity politics’ and a refusal to accept change. ‘We are squabbling about what it means to be deaf,’ he said.”
Update: A reader emailed me to point out that although the media has emphasized these criticisms of Fernandes not being “deaf enough,” that is not a true concern among students at all. Instead, the reader emphasized her poor record as Provost as the heart of the criticisms against her.
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Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Student Protests at Gallaudet University" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2006/05/student-protests-at-gallaudet-university/> ().
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