WASHINGTON – The newly chosen president of Gallaudet University, the nation's only liberal arts college for the deaf, received a no-confidence vote from 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.
Fernandes, who was selected by the board of trustees last week and is scheduled to take office next January, was born deaf but grew up speaking and did not learn American Sign Language until she was 23. Sign language is the preferred way of communicating at 1,900-student Gallaudet.
Dozens of students and alumni waited outside as the voting took place, and some cheered and shouted when the vote was announced.
"If the board ignores the faculty, they ignore the entire university," said Anthony Mowl, a spokesman for a group opposed to Fernandes. The English major from Fishers, Ind., graduates this week.
Fernandes, 49, who declined to be interviewed after the vote, said earlier she is caught in a cultural debate.
"There's a kind of perfect deaf person," said Fernandes, who described that as someone who is born deaf to deaf parents, learns ASL at home, attends deaf schools, marries a deaf person and has deaf children. "People like that will remain the core of the university."
Fernandes is married to a retired Gallaudet professor who can hear. So can the couple's two children. Some people who were deaf at birth can learn to speak through intensive speech therapy.
Fernandes was named to succeed I. King Jordan, who in 1988 became the first deaf president of Gallaudet since the school was founded by Congress in 1864. He got the job after student protesters marched to the Capitol demanding a "Deaf President Now" following the appointment of a president who could hear.
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.
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.
The demonstrators demanded that the trustees reopen the selection process, with some complaining that Jordan had undue influence over the appointment of Fernandes, currently the school's provost. Others have complained that the process was not diverse enough, since all three candidates were white, and that Fernandes is not respected on campus.
Jordan said that the selection of a president is not a "popularity contest" and that this movement should not be compared to the one that swept him into office. If the board gives in, he said, it would be dangerous for the governance of the school.