Mr. Sandman's Sandbox

The musings of a Deaf Californian on life, politics, religion, sex, and other unmentionables. This blog is not guaranteed to lead to bon mots appropriate for dinner-table conversation; make of it what you will.

Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

Monday, October 30, 2006

Tent City: Aftermath Part II

Last night I discussed some possible ideas for how to handle the transition, and what I thought the Board of Trustees should do next. Now I'd like to examine yet again each group involved in the protest, and where I think they might (or should) go from here (I previously examined the actors in Framing the Stalemate: Intermission, where I explored what each party had been doing over the summer, and in Framing the Stalemate: What Now, Gallaudet?, which discussed what each faction needed to do in the wake of the initial stage of the protests in May).

I. King Jordan and Jane K. Fernandes

The outgoing president and the outgoing President-Designate both wrote rather gracious letters in the wake of the Board announcement, in my opinion, although quite a few people sent virtual boos their way, including a loose cannon in Arizona. Jordan, of course, is still sitting in College Hall and living in House One. As I said yesterday, I think it best that he serve out his two remaining months and then exit, hopefully far more gracefully than he's been the last few months. While the hecklers during the SAC re-naming ceremony behaved poorly (a better tactic would have been to just NOT show up at the ceremony at all-- at times, a person's absence says as much or even more than their presence does), Jordan hasn't exactly been a role model or viewed as one over the last month (and indeed, before that).

I'm not sure what he'll do in his retirement-- if he really cares about shoring up his reputation, he could apologize for his part in this mess. While this won't rehabilitate him, it might help heal some of the wounds that he and others have caused over the last 6-7 months. Most likely though, he'll probably vanish from the scene once he's handed over the keys to his office and home, and for most of us, that will be it. So, Dr. Jordan-- one final soliloquy if you like, and then exit, stage right.

Dr. Fernandes, on the other hand, may be a bit more problematic. She's still young, and probably isn't ready for retirement. Additionally, she still retains tenure at Gallaudet. Personally, I think she's persona non grata with most people at Gallaudet, and if she's wise, she'll vacate her office and not look back. She's lost her promotion, and given the circumstances, I highly doubt the Board will offer her her previous job as provost back (if they did, they'd be fools to, given the rancor of the last few months, not to say the last few years), so as far as career advancement goes, she's finished-- at least at Gallaudet.

I must confess, I feel somewhat sorry for her. While I think she was harsh and autocratic, and she screwed up Pre-College Programs majorly, I think her role the last six months has been rather minor compared to Jordan's and the Board of Trustees' roles. She was as much a victim as a perpetrator-- a victim of a mentor who was short-sighted enough not to realize what a community was trying to tell him, and a Board of Trustees that was AWOL most of the time. She was a perpetrator in that she conspired with the Office of Public Relations, Jordan, and other supporters to continue to push a false meme: she wasn't wanted because "she wasn't deaf enough." As I said previously, for someone who professed to love Gallaudet so much, she sure had a strange way of showing it. Gallaudet is now viewed by many hearing people as a school which harbors an intolerant minority, a regressive student population (regardless of the degree of truth to this). Sure, some young people will continue to aim for Gallaudet, and enroll there. But how many will be turned off? More importantly, how many parents will say to themselves, "Hmmm... maybe Gallaudet isn't where I want to send my child." The protesters bear some blame for this as well-- I'll explain more about this later.

One of the main reasons I feel sorry for her is that, as a deaf person, she is going to face discrimination should she choose to leave Gallaudet for good. I don't care how many of you hate her, think she's totally vile, have "suffered" under her, etc. She's a terrible administrator, she's not a warm person, yes; but she's still deaf. Finding employment is not always easy, even for those of us with advanced degrees. Gallaudet was and is one of the few places where we face anything close to a level playing board when it comes to employment. If she had tried harder, had listened harder, had reached out more, perhaps she could have realized early on what the community was trying to say, and declined her appointment to the presidency. If that had happened, she might have been able to stay as provost (and even if not, she might have been welcome in one of the Academic departments-- if not in the Department of ASL and Deaf Studies, then over in the English Department (where she'd be a better fit-- after all, her terminal degree is in Comparative Literature)). More likely though, at this point, she's done at Gallaudet, which is probably best as far as the campus and its community is concerned.

I don't know where she'll go at this point; she's gained enough notoriety she'll probably score a few interviews. But the flip side of the coin is that same notoriety may make some prospective employers more reluctant to consider her. I just hope that wherever she goes, she doesn't plan on a job in administration again; she's proven to be inept at that occupation. I have no idea what will happen next for Fernandes; but it's possible this isn't the last we've heard of her.

The Board of Trustees

At the beginning of this entire mess, I was perplexed; I couldn't understand why the Board made the decision it did to extend an offer to Fernandes, but felt that the only thing they were guilty of was a lack of common sense. It was very obvious to even the most casual observer who had some knowledge of events at Gallaudet that Fernandes was NOT wanted, and that the BoT risked reaping the whirlwind should they choose her.

But... I was willing to cut the Board some slack. The only facts I had that troubled me were what my wife and other MSSD graduates shared regarding Fernandes' tenure there, and Jamie Berke's recounting of her confrontational experience with Fernandes over her son's education at Kendall. While it was obvious she had screwed up in her first job at Gallaudet, I initially wasn't seeing any concrete evidence from dissenters about Fernandes' time as provost, or why she should be denied the job. I had some questions and reservations about the final slate the PSC submitted, and a few other nagging doubts. My main reason in May for wanting Fernandes to either resign or to be removed was that she had already proven herself divisive even before being offered the job; I saw no good coming out of her promotion if she stayed.

By October, my views had changed-- while I still felt a major reason for the need to have Fernandes step down was due to her divisiveness, there were quite a few other reasons, as slowly but surely people started sharing information. My views also changed about the Board as well. While Jordan was quite visible during the month of October, and Public Relations under Mercy Coogan churned out tons of statements and press releases, Fernandes was practically nowhere to be seen, and the Board was barely responding to anything as well. I now felt that the BoT was equally culpable for the events since May 1 (and before, really), and that things would have to change.

Where the Board should first start, if if hasn't already done so in private, is to examine itself as a governing body, and assign blame within, where it is warranted. Why did the Board accept a lopsided final pool? Why did the Board choose Fernandes, when it was clear as daylight that it would provoke a firestorm? Why did the Board then issue sporadic statements, offering tepid approval of Fernandes (obviously, they already realized that maybe, just maybe, their decision wasn't the right one...?)? Why didn't the Board accept more responsibility and assume a more active role when the protests assumed steam again on October 2? Why did the Board remain silent as the administration misstepped repeatedly? Why did the Board issue a supportive letter practically at the same time they condescended to permit a token representative have all of five minutes to make a statement? Why did the Board do practically nothing about the arrests on October 13 (they certainly could have reined in Jordan or whomever proclaimed the actual orders for the arrests)? Why didn't the Board speak up or try to find another approach to handling the fiasco at the Brentwood gate? Finally, why did it take nearly a whole month for the Board to finally meet and make the decision they should have made at the beginning of October, if not earlier?

Personally, I think the Board collectively failed in its responsibilities, period. It appears that the only way to remove a Trustee is by the majority vote of the Trustees themselves-- but regardless of the bylaws, I don't think the Board members as a group should remain as trustees.

While I don't think another protest is warranted, I think part of the reforms at Gallaudet need to include a gradual reconstitution of the Board, as individual terms expire. The goal should be to include more alumni representation (I can't recall right now who said this first, but I know I read somewhere out there in the blogosphere about having at least 51% of the board be alumni-- the original author/poster mentioned that a majority representation of alumni on college and university BoTs is common at many other schools). While some board members obviously are representative of different constituencies within the deaf community (witness Bill Graham, the founder of ALDA), only 6 of the 17 current trustees are alumni. I think this has to be a priority for the university in the months and years to come-- the reconfiguration of the Board.

Second, I think the Board, either through its own internal desire or through external pressure (though I suspect it will be a combination of the two), needs to follow through on its letter it issued in the wake of the end of the academic year and Commencement, and instigate and nurture a more open relationship with the campus community and its various constituencies. It would be hollow and hypocritical not to do so otherwise. This means that the arrogance they showed Tara Holcomb, Noah Beckman, et al needs to cease, and a warmer, more genuine relationship needs to develop between the Board and the campus at large. Regardless of the maturity and chronological age of the students, they still represent the next generation of alumni-- a powerful community that the Board obviously wants a good working relationship with (money, anyone?).

The BoT also needs to reassess how they establish various working committees, such as the Presidential Search Committee. Was it really necessary to have four members of the committee be trustees? I think it would have been far better to have a broader mix of people involved, so that as many opinions and perspectives could be considered in preparation for one of the Board's most important duties: selecting a leader.

The Board could also spend some time reassessing how the campus functions, how the administration works, and how to best ensure appropriate participation from the various members of the campus community. While this doesn't mean allowing the students, or the faculty, or the staff to run the university, it does mean forging a working partnership whenever possible. I'm not one to advocate bureaucracy, but it might not be a bad idea to establish an advisory council that would have the responsibility to work with the Board and advise when and where necessary. This council should have one representative from each of the four main groups: one student, one staff member, one faculty member, and one alumni. In addition, the SBG president should be a part of this council as well. This advisory board should attend all board meetings, should have constant contact with the various factions on campus, and the Board should take advantage of this council and communicate with them about various issues as they arise.

I'm not sure if this should be anything more than an advisory board; voting rights, and all that may not be the best idea. But there needs to be a way for the BoT to have the means to be continually aware of what's going on on campus, and this seems like one way to do it.

Another idea could be for the BoT to set aside a bloc of time during its campus visitations to host an open forum, where anyone can stand up and share their opinions, suggestions, or concerns about Gallaudet. This would place responsibility on all shoulders: the Board would have the chance to listen to the wider campus community, and any person with any affiliation at Gallaudet would have the opportunity to speak up (or otherwise have no one to blame but themselves for not saying anything). In other words, a dialogue needs to emerge here-- and not just the promise of one, or the hint of one, but a real conversation. This is necessary if healing is to happen.

One more idea for the Board to consider: my fellow alumni, Neil "Jake" McDevitt, has made an excellent suggestion: a revamping of the current Crisis Management Team, and the need for a liaison who has both crisis management knowledge and internal knowledge of campus. I told Neil he's an obvious choice for such a position, but it doesn't necessarily have to be him-- it could be another alumni or deaf person who has the needed knowledge and experience.

The Students

I have mixed feelings about this group, probably because I was once a student myself. I know from personal experience just how fickle young students can be, how absorbed they are in their own lives, their own growth and development, and the blossoming of their journey through life as they experience their first real taste of freedom and self-determination away from their families.

...And you know what? Ideally, that's how it should be. Now that the protest (as a means to remove Fernandes) is over, the majority of them should be allowed to go back to being students, which is their sole reason for being at Gallaudet in the first place. But that doesn't mean they get to skip out on their responsibilities in what happens next. As I stated above, students will need to be involved. They'll need to engage the Board of Trustees, and extend a hand in reconciliation. They'll need to actively participate when offered the chance to do so; that includes campus committees at all levels. SBG needs to become more engaged; some years there have been excellent SBG presidents and administrations (and a number of the really good leaders have gone on to become leaders in the community at large) -- other years, it's pretty much an academic-year party planning committee. Now that the students understand more clearly the stakes and internal operations of campus, maybe there'll be a stronger desire to ensure that Gallaudet runs smoothly for everyone-- students, staff, faculty, and other employees.

Most of all, the students need to be patient; change isn't going to come overnight, and a protest isn't warranted or necessary each and every time there's a campus crisis. This is true for the alumni and the larger deaf community as well-- protest and the tactics that come with it should always be a last resort. None of us really need to go through this again each time there's turnover at College Hall, or any time there's other problems that emerge (the protest about English at Gallaudet in the early 90's is one example).


I haven't really discussed this group much at all, and there really isn't much need to do so. However, I do want to mention two items I think are important.

The first is that there needs to be increased respect and a new working relationship with some of the more misunderstood and least-respected groups on campus: PPD and DPS. A lot of students take PPD workers, cafeteria workers, and other similar employees for granted. That's the case also in the larger world, as well, both deaf and hearing. That needs to change. They're cleaning your homes, offices, and communal spaces; they're serving you food, cleaning your bathrooms, and making sure that you all live and work comfortably, regardless of what you're personally doing. A more cordial relationship needs to be forged with DPS as well. Otherwise, misunderstandings, mistrust, and hostility from individuals on either side can lead to a larger collective conflict, one that can and has ended in tragedy in the past.

But, again, the other side of the coin is that these employees need to learn to sign and communicate more effectively. While this probably isn't necessary for the cafeteria workers, and is less of a priority where PPD is concerned for the most part, it is crucial for DPS. This was highlighted most tragically more than 15 years ago, when Carl DuPree died. While his death was an extreme example of failure, there have been numerous misunderstandings and hassles over the years due to the inability of DPS officers to fully develop receptive and expressive signing skills. This is an issue the BoT and administration needs to urgently revisit, as soon as possible.

In the past, deaf and hard-of-hearing students and alumni have served or been temporarily employed by DPS/DOSS, such as Dean Prentice, Kurt Kornkven, and Neil McDevitt, among others. I'm not sure what the current practice is nowadays, but it seems like a good time to revisit the idea of hiring more security officers who are capable of fluent communication and straddling both the deaf and hearing worlds. While a number of officers/guards are going to, out of necessity and for obvious reasons, be able to hear, I don't see why a larger percentage can't be deaf or hard-of-hearing. At the very least, it wouldn't hurt to perhaps do outreach among hearing children of deaf adults, some of whom might be interested in such a career, or among sign language students who may want a more firm schedule and regular hours than an interpreter has.

The second thing I want to mention is the need for the faculty to take a more proactive role in strengthening educational standards. While some teachers are excellent, and many make a concrete effort to push the students to the limits of their potential, it is sadly the case that all too many are "settled" in their careers, and have accepted a marginal threshold of performance, justifying it by saying that "that's just how the students are." If Gallaudet is truly going to want to improve its performance evaluations as administered by such entities as the federal government, then administrators, faculty, and students all need to work together to make that happen.

Yes, students-- you too. You might sit around complaining that Gallaudet offers a lackluster education, and to an extent with some teachers and departments, that may be true. But the reality is, you only get as much out of your education as you put into it. If a professor or instructor dumbs down the curriculum, or doesn't challenge you enough, and you accept this simply to avoid having to do any real work or accepting it because "that's just how it is," then you're equally complicit in your educational failure. When you have an excellent teacher and you underperform, it may be due to any number of factors-- not everyone is good in every subject, and not everyone is ready for college, or willing to accept that maybe they fucked up (I know-- I've been there. I had some excellent teachers while I was at Gallaudet, and I didn't always take advantage of the opportunity to truly learn). But when you have a subpar teacher, and you take advantage of that to either complain or just to accept it as it is, then you're allowing Gallaudet to maintain a substandard educational quality.

So-- if you're a faculty member, then you need to examine yourself and your career: why are you at Gallaudet in the first place? Why did you even become interested in Gallaudet to begin with, especially given its unique culture and population? Do you still care about your job, or are you burned out? Do you want to improve yourself, your students, your department, or are you satisfied with maintaining the status quo?

Alumni/Deaf Community

These two groups are both inextricably entwined with Gallaudet, and starkly independent as well. The majority of the alumni do not work at Gallaudet, and a large number have not been on campus in years, perhaps decades. Yet they still maintain bonds with other alumni, keep themselves updated on news regarding Gallaudet, and in some cases, send their children and other relatives to Gallaudet. But at the same time, most of us have moved on, and we have lives and responsibilities of our own that have nothing to do with Gallaudet. There are some issues and concerns at Gallaudet that involve all of us; there are many more than are solely internal campus problems, and should remain so. For all of its vaunted reputation as a "Deaf Mecca" and the heart and soul of the deaf community, it is still, at heart, simply a university.

What the alumni and the community need to do is to help the students, other groups on campus, and onlookers at large do is separate the various issues and concerns from each other, and address those that have larger implications for all of us as a whole, while permitting administrators, faculty, and staff to tackle those that are the sole province of academia.

At the same time, we must not become complacent: for example, there are only a handful of GUAA chapters, and quite a few that are inactive or not very energetic. For example, the San Francisco Bay Area GUAA was recently revived as a response to the recent crisis; it's time for us to stop being reactive, and start being proactive. Jennifer "JAC" Cook's presentation on "Deaf Think Tanks" at the NAD conference in Palm Desert is an example of proactiveness. There are quite a few issues that were raised the last several months that need to continue to be discussed, such as the rift between those of us who sign and those of us who don't. Broader issues such as employment, captioning, and accessibility are areas where broad coalitions can and should be built.

Thornier issues such as education need to be re-framed and restructured, rather than played out with the same old arguments. For example: rather than insisting that the residential schools are the only way to go (which provokes resistance among people who think mainstreaming or other options are better, and encourages their political allies in power (such as state legislatures!) to reconsider the existence of such schools), instead re-frame it as a viable option that is available pending individual consideration and evaluation of the deaf child as an individual. This really leads to a larger discussion that is best saved for another time, but I wanted to use it as an example.

While I think the concept of Deafhood is great, and there may be great promise in exploring and interpreting Dr. Ladd's work, I'm disappointed that it was so intertwined with the protest. It needs to be separate, and the concepts within need to be deconstructed and disseminated to a larger audience. One thing, though, that I thought was thoughtful that came out of the Deafhood workshops at NAD over the summer was David Eberwein's exhortation that we need to start "thinking outside the box."

Yes, it's time for all of us to start "thinking outside the box." It's time for all of us not to sit back, not to simply go back to our everyday lives, but after a short period of rest and recuperation, to harness some of the energy that was spent the last several months, and start using it in ways that will create positive outcomes. The protest was reactive; now it's time for us all to become proactive.