Topic: Professions & Institutions

Unethical Student Protest at Gallaudet

A bracing lesson in wretched protest ethics is being taught at Gallaudet University in the District of Columbia, where students at the nation’s only university for the deaf have escalated a juvenile and, yes, bigoted protest that began in May over the choice of a new president. Now the cycle of obstruction of classes and student arrests has begun, and as anyone who survived a college campus in the Sixties knows, this means trouble. The next step is for indignant students to begin protesting the University’s treatment of protesters who richly deserve exactly the treatment they received. After that, chaos is near at hand.

Why are the students protesting? That basic question has become more difficult to answer with each passing week, as protest leaders have added and subtracted “demands” at a dizzying pace, frustrating administrators, negotiators and the media. All that is certain is that the protest began in response to the Gallaudet Board of Trustees choosing provost Jane Fernandes to be the university’s new president. What’s the matter with Fernandes? Though the Trustees maintain that she was far and away the most qualified candidate, the protesting students don’t like her manner, which is reserved rather than charismatic. They claim that the search process wasn’t diverse enough (though by all measures it seems to have been very much so), and that she herself “does not reflect the diversity of the campus,” though how one person can ever “represent diversity” is a puzzle worthy of Stephen Hawking. But the ugly truth behind the protest is rank bigotry: Fernandes, a deaf woman who only learned sign language at the age of 21, has been judged as not sufficiently committed to “Deaf Culture,” the prominent movement among the deaf that opposes any surgical or medical efforts to allow the deaf to hear and objects to communication by speech. In other words, the protestors simultaneously claim that the Trustees did not embrace diversity in their search process and reject their choice of a president because she believes in diverse approaches to the interaction between the hearing and the non-hearing communities. No wonder administrators have had no success addressing their concerns.

The protesters also believe that students should run the university, a charming fantasy but an impractical one. Because the student body in 1988 derailed the last choice of a president, insisting that Gallaudet appoint its first deaf president in place of the Trustees’ choice, it apparently believes that this unique event created a permanent precedent giving students a veto over whoever is the presidential choice, regardless of qualification, fairness or the thoroughness of the selection process.

King Jordan, the popular Gallaudet president installed by the last student uprising, directed police to arrest protestors who had closed the university to demand Fernandes’ resignation. In doing so he pointed out that this protracted student tantrum was preventing deaf students from college age to kindergarten from attending classes (Gallaudet’s campus also hosts classes below college level), and that the disruptions were destructive and intolerable. His statement was a refreshing reminder that higher education is first and foremost about education, not politics, and the flourishing of “Deaf Culture” at Gallaudet has not been without its severe academic downside. For example, it is shocking to read some of the posts to deaf blogs and websites written by Gallaudet students. The mode of expression used is a written form of signing, resulting in an ungrammatical variety of broken English that can fairly be described as illiterate. It is hard to imagine a stronger argument for the educational reform the Trustees endorsed by naming Fernandes.

As often happens with protests, the demonstrating Gallaudet students are more motivated by hubris, bias, a sense of their own power, and undeserved disrespect for authority than a well-defined grievance. They are now harming their school and other students, and the proper response by the administration is the harshest one, what could be called “the Air Traffic Controller Solution” after President Reagan’s controversial but correct resolution of an illegal union strike in 1981. Gallaudet’s administration should inform the students that Fernandes will be the next president, and give them a reasonable but short period to wind down their protest, after which any student disrupting classes in any way will be expelled, permanently, and treated as a trespasser on the Gallaudet campus thereafter.

Five months of tolerating a self-indulgent and offensive student protest is more than fair. Not every protest has right on its side, and the deaf are just as capable of behaving unethically and irresponsibly as anyone else. This protest is unethical, and must either end or be stopped.

UPDATE [10/31/2006]: On October 29, the Trustees of Gallaudet caved in completely to the demands of protesters and dismissed the newly-appointed president, Jane Fernandes. This capitulation violates the Trustees’ fiduciary obligations to the University by compromising the best interests of the institution and abdicating their duty to choose the best qualified president of Gallaudet regardless of student pressures, complaints and prejudices. Unethical conduct like the student and faculty protest that had paralyzed the university for weeks will prevail when those whose responsibility it is to uphold orderly policy and procedure are unwilling to endure the unpleasant process of confrontation, enforcement and discipline. Gallaudet’s Trustees have purchased peace at the cost of fairness and principle, and the transaction is very likely to cause long-term problems for the institution.

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