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Letter to the Board of Trustees of Gallaudet University from the UK

Dear Board of Trustees of Gallaudet University

The recent long drawn out events at Gallaudet University have aroused great concern all around the world, and are now beginning to have a negative impact on Deaf communities in other countries, including the UK.

Since Gallaudet University is the world's only Deaf university, the position of President does not just denote a leader of a single campus within the United States; that person is in fact an international leader within a global Deaf Community. Thus, the international reputation of Gallaudet is also implicated in the decisions which lead to the election of the President. Consequently we feel it is necessary to write to you immediately to explain in more detail why we are concerned.

As some of you will no doubt be aware, the Deaf community of the world is very differently organised than others. It is noted for having particularly close, rapid and in-depth contact between members right across the globe, as I. King Jordan may recall in respect of the international dimension to the campaign to have a Deaf president back in 1988.

Some of the signatories of this letter have thus maintained close contact with Gallaudet faculty, staff and students over the intervening 18 years, and have been concerned for a number of years at the continued promotion of Jane Fernandes within the wider campus, despite serious concerns in respect of her management style, character, and so on, which have been perceived as alienating many of the above.

In 2002 we were told by several members of the faculty that “Jane Fernandes will be the next President of Gallaudet - it has already been decided”. Of course, we are not privy to the decisions which led to Jane Fernandes' appointment, but the subsequent fulfilment of this assertion raises grave concerns about the credibility of the appointment.

There would also appear to be evidence that the presidential search was repeatedly warned by faculty, staff and students that appointing Jane Fernandes would be a major mistake. That is reflected in last Monday's overwhelming faculty vote. It should also be noted that the 82 % of the vote asking for her removal has increased since the equivalent meeting in the spring of 2006.

Her recent interview on National Public Radio clearly confirms that those warnings were justified. Her comments are remarkable in their attempts to deny responsibility (“the protest is not really about me”), which must immediately give concern about her leadership qualities. However, her suggestions that the protest is based around Gallaudet faculty and students’ fear of change, and that without her presence, for example, those with cochlear implants would not be welcomed into Gallaudet, are very serious charges to lay against her future employees and students, especially in a public forum in this manner. There seem to be only two readings of these stated beliefs. Either Fernandes believes them – in which case she is arguably deluded, and thus an inappropriate choice for President. Or she does not believe them and is engaging in political rhetoric – which seriously damages the institution she is supposed to serve.

It is therefore hardly unsurprising that the range of persons and organisations both within and without Gallaudet who have since called for Ms Fernandes resignation is almost unprecedented, and as you know includes many distinguished names who have paid long service to Gallaudet.

Taken together, these 3 factors suggest the presence of a degree of authoritarianism which is not in keeping with the cultural values of Deaf communities. We are reminded of a similar authoritarianism in 1988. However, as a result of the worldwide campaign which then followed, that board radically changed its attitudes once it realised that its decisions not only risked damaging the university itself, but Deaf people all around the world.

We have many concerns about I. K. Jordan's press statement, released on Monday 16 October. We will not comment in depth here, but we are concerned both about its tone (for example, in referring to the students as “a mob”), its content, and its 'spin'. The extent to which this statement focuses on issues of disruption is disingenuous, not least because the degree to which the disruption was created by administrative decisions seems in any case to be in some dispute.

The perception of the protestors as “intransigent” reads oddly in the light of the overwhelming faculty vote and the other evidence cited above. This intransigence can very easily be read as taking place on the other side of the fence.

Indeed the faculty vote sends a message to all academics around the world, and has reverberations far beyond Deaf domains. It tells them that, should the leader of their university be so unpopular as to arouse this unprecedented amount of opposition, that their own inside knowledge, expertise, and care for their community counts for nothing. The longer this Gallaudet situation continues, the more of those movers and shakers will come to hear about it, and form their own opinions.

Of course, in their own worlds, similar protests take place. This year alone there have been protests leading to resignations in 9 other USA universities, including Harvard. In the UK in August 2006, South Kent College suspended their Principal after 2/3rds of the faculty and staff expressed no confidence in him.

These are examples of avenues and actions which democratic societies are able to avail themselves of whenever a situation has been allowed to escalate to a point where “the letter of the law” has been found wanting. Moreover, civil disobedience and non violent direct action traditionally follows when people feel that a situation is serious enough to warrant it. Such actions are not entered into lightly, and expose those who do so to risk their physical and mental health.

These above approaches are the bedrock of civil rights movements all across the world for the past two centuries or more. People both in the United States and the United Kingdom are justly proud of that record, and (usually in hindsight) often come to see the participants who took such risks as heroic. There is no reason to think that Deaf communities should be excluded from such movements. Indeed, their involvement can be read as a sign of growing political maturity.

It should be noted that in most such examples, the responses of those in power bears an uncanny resemblance to those exhibited in I. K. Jordan's press statement. Indeed the authoritarianism we expressed concern about above is amply displayed throughout this statement, notably in its “refusal” of the demand for no reprisals. This has now culminated in the recent attempt to cancel the Homecoming weekend, possibly in order that the scale of the protest may continue to be hidden from the media.

Leadership of Deaf communities is at its best a stewardship, an honourable protector of the reputation of communities which experience daily oppression worldwide in innumerable ways. This oppression is often aided and abetted by the media, so that Deaf people's voices are rarely heard. This certainly appears to be true of the present situation, where media coverage has largely followed the administration's line, and printed and reprinted right around the world the slurs and red herrings it was fed, rather than present a balanced view. This representation of the situation thus risks causing even more damage to Deaf peoples worldwide.

There come times in history when the larger picture has to be seen as more important in the scheme of things. The welfare of these communities worldwide takes precedent over any single individual's desire to take power. A similar approach can be found in mainstream societies, where the adage “no politician is more important than their party” can lead to resignations when it is felt that remaining in post does more damage than their trying to cling on to power.

Almost all members of Deaf communities know that in their cultures it is unthinkable for a Deaf person to try to maintain their power against the wishes of many of its members. Unity is a cultural keyword, indeed a moral principle and imperative in our worlds. The extent to which Jane Fernandes seeks to hold onto power in the face of such widespread distress can be seen as indicative of her unwillingness to respect these centuries-old values. Indeed, it could be said that this attitude perfectly synchronises with, and thus confirms, the very fears listed at the start of this letter.

We ask all of you to try to put the wider needs and cultural values of Deaf communities above your own personal needs or desires, and bring an end as swiftly as possible to this daily humiliation of our peoples. There is also no doubt that you will gain far more respect from people if you were able to admit that you had misread the importance of your decisions, and were then able to show that you were 'big enough' to change your minds when faced with events of such historical magnitude.

Moreover, in so doing, you could become important role models for the 'hearing world', able to show the world the positive aspects of Deaf communities. Then, not only would you go a significant way towards repairing the damage that has been caused, but who knows - you might even set an example which turns all this negativity into a positive triumph for Deaf communities!

cc. Dr Jane K. Fernandes; Dr I. King Jordan

Signed by

Matthew Adedeji
Doug Alker, Chair, British Deaf Association
Kriskin Allum, School of Fashion and Textile Design, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design London
Robin Ash, Senior Deaf Educational Instructor
Rachell Bastikar, Vice-Chair, British Deaf Association, Gallaudet Alumni
Dr Sarah Batterbury
Howard Beck
Alison Bryan
Emma Coleman
Clark Denmark, Centre for Deaf Studies, University of Bristol and a Gallaudet alumni
Anne Devine
Susan Devine
Siobhan Dodd
Jen Dodds, Translator/Writer/ Postgraduate Student
Claire Dowdican, Youth Development Officer, Deafway
Bob Duncan, Writer, Producer, Director
Frances Elton, University College London
Steve Emery, Research Associate, Heriot-Watt University
Paula Garfield, Deaf TV actress
Claire Haddon
Rachael Hayes
Len Hodson
Sharvedh Kanaye (Gallaudet Alumni – Class of 2002)
Dr. Paddy Ladd, Powrie V Doctor Chair of Deaf Studies, Gallaudet University 1992-3
Tomato Lichy, Deaf Artist & Film Maker
Gavin Lilley, Project Officer & Lecturer, University of Central Lancashire
Richard Magill
Desmond Masterson
Niall McCormack, Artist
Ailsa McGilp, Art Psychotherapist (Art Therapist)
Helga McGilp
James McLean
Judith Mole, Direct Learn
Tony Nicholas
Nicola Nunn
Gary Quinn, Project Officer, Heriot-Watt University
Katie Rogers, Research Assistant, University of Manchester
Sister Marika Rebicsek, Lecturer in Deaf Studies, Redbridge College (signing in a personal capacity)
Mary-Jayne Russell de Clifford, Drama Workshop Leader, Stage Manager
Janice Silo
Andrea Simpson, Andrea's School of BSL
Colin Singh
June Smith, BSL Lecturer
Dr Sharon Ridgeway-Traynor
Kibra Taye, London
Neil Tiffin, Qualified & Registered Electrician/Wiring, London
Noel Traynor, Chief Executive, Manchester Deaf Centre
Sarah Tupling, Secretary, Derby Deaf Forum
Lesley Walmsley, Andrea's School of BSL
Rob Wilks, Trainee Solicitor
Karen Wikhom
Howard Woolfe
Linda Woolfe
Ramon Woolfe, Director
Dr. Tyron Woolfe, Post Doctoral Researcher, Univeristy College London

All signatures either in a personal or professional capacity.

Comments (5)

All of them well known for NOT supporting all deaf people reagrdless of communications, and die-hard fringe BSl activists, so what's new ? A who is who of BSL segregrationists. Not one from the HI sector of nore either. The RNID/NDCS/Hearing Concern/NADP will NOT support this protest either, why should they ? It's wrong.

Your information is incorrect as usual. It is clear you do not know who everyone is on this list of people.

I am not even sure why you are bringing domestic issues into this, when this is about support for what is happening at Gallaudet.

Au Contraire, it is about having a day out to show UK deaf are still alive, nothing you can protest about or do will make an iota of difference to the outcome. I think it perfectly relevant to bring up the issue of campaigning, for rights, begins like charity, at home first. This is attempting to support discrimination, and deaf bullying in America, I don't see how UK deaf can support that, when we campaign here that all deaf are equal, we don't ever state WHICH deaf are equal or more so than any other. 80% of those named on Grumpy's list of support, aren't bringing a tent or campaigning there either, anyone can sign a list, via a blog. Let's see Paddy Ladd and Dougie under canvas for a few weeks then, we'll talk again ! As 'someone informed' then you will know that NO significant HI group has offered any support, like to ask why ? This the deaf clique in action again.

I would like to apply for undergraduate in place of university."My name is Raghav Dhawan".I'm interested in applying for undergraduate in that. I'm hearing impaired student, I live in India.Could you please send me the bro chure details of this course?.

@ Alison: Was there a reply to the above letter?

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