WASHINGTON – Gallaudet University students blocked access to campus for a second day Thursday, escalating their protest against an incoming president they say lacks the skills to lead the nation's only liberal arts university for the deaf and hearing impaired.
"We're in the middle of a crisis here," said LaToya Plummer, 25, a junior from Suitland, Md., who was among the protesters.
The blockade started around 3 a.m. Wednesday and forced the university to cancel classes for a second day Thursday as about 100 students protested at the front gate. Students sitting in 11 chairs blocked the main campus road at the gate and refused to move when a bus tried to drive through the entrance.
The students have said they wouldn't let the school reopen unless the presidential search process is reopened.
It was unclear whether university officials would try to move them. "Of course, we never want to use force," said university spokeswoman Mercy Coogan. "We hope to do this peacefully."
The protests began last spring when then-Provost Jane K. Fernandes was appointed president, starting this coming January, by the school's board of trustees.
Students intensified their protests on Oct. 5, when they took over Gallaudet's main classroom building — an occupation that was marred by complaints about rough actions by campus police. Since then, hundreds of students have been camped out inside and around Hall Memorial Building, forcing school officials to move or cancel classes.
The university's outgoing president, I. King Jordan, issued a statement late Wednesday warning the protesters of possible suspensions and arrests.
"This illegal and unlawful behavior must stop," he said.
Plummer, who signed through an interpreter, and other students and some faculty said they felt shut out of the selection process for the next president. Some also felt the field of candidates was not ethnically diverse.
"They have no idea who we are," Plummer said of the board of trustees.
Fernandes has said some people do not consider her "deaf enough" to be president. She was born deaf but grew up speaking and did not learn American Sign Language until she was 23. Those who are against her presidency say she is an unsuitable choice for other reasons.
"I feel that this institution cannot move forward under Dr. Fernandes' leadership because there are too many disagreements about her as a leader," said Mark Weinberger, a professor of foreign languages at Gallaudet and also chair of the faculty's Senate.
The school has about 1,800 undergraduate and graduate students.