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Fernandes Vows to Fight for Presidency of Gallaudet

Gallaudet University students post a sign demanding in-coming president, Jane K. Fernandes, to step down, Oct. 13, 2006 in Washington, D.C.
Gallaudet University students post a sign demanding in-coming president, Jane K. Fernandes, to step down, Oct. 13, 2006 in Washington, D.C.

NPR is providing a full transcript:

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: Last night, we heard from protesters at Gallaudet University in Washington. Now we hear from the object of their anger, Jane Fernandes. She's the controversial administrator named as the next president of the nation's leading liberal arts school for deaf students. But the board of trustees has called an emergency meeting -- and will decide whether to tell her to step aside. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, reporter: At the black, iron gates to campus, protesters have hoisted a mocking effigy of Jane Fernandes. And when the deaf woman chosen to become the school's next president drives onto campus, protesters jeer her and bang on her car.

So why -- with all that anger hurled at her -- would Jane Fernandes still want to be president of Gallaudet?

JANE FERNANDES: I want to be president and I will be president because I care very deeply about deaf education.

SHAPIRO: Fernandes signs as an interpreter speaks. Some protesters don't trust her because as a child, she learned to speak and read lips. Fernandes says when she did learn sign language, at the age of 23, it was a breakthrough. And that's why she wants to be Gallaudet president, to help more students discover the richness of deaf culture.

FERNANDES: I had to work very hard to learn everything that I did learn. I did not have the services and the accommodations that deaf students have now in their schooling, and I believe that deaf people deserve the best education that we can provide them. It's my deep commitment to deaf people, which is the reason why I will be president of Gallaudet.

SHAPIRO: Whether she will become president -- the job she's supposed to take on Jan. 2 -- is up to the board of trustees. They chose her last May. They've issued strong support for her ever since.

But now they've called an emergency meeting for Sunday. And speculation on campus is that they wouldn't do that unless there was growing sentiment to tell her to step aside.

Brenda Jo Brueggeman is the acting head of the board of trustees. She still supports Fernandes. And she explains why she and the other trustees chose Fernandes last spring:

BRENDA JO BRUEGGEMAN: She was the most qualified candidate. A university president is not a popularity contest. It's not an easy job. It's one of the hardest jobs in the country.

SHAPIRO: Brueggeman says if Fernandes is forced to resign -- because it's the only way to stop the protest -- then that would undermine decision-making at Gallaudet for years to come.

BRUEGGEMAN: I don't know how if she were to step down, how we would ever be able to appoint a president. If in fact a group of protesters can control the decision, then that means you don't even have a process in place that would guarantee you could do it again.

SHAPIRO: One on one, Fenandes is personable. She's got a vision for the future of a diverse Gallaudet with higher academic achievement.

But she has made a lot of enemies since she arrived as an administrator more than a decade ago. She shook up departments, sometimes pushing out longtime staff members. Many co-workers say she's cold, distant and autocratic.

Students say she's scolding, paternalistic and doesn't listen.

Still, a lot of college presidents are not warm and fuzzy.

Fernandes thinks some of the opposition to her is just old-fashioned sexism.

FERNANDES: I'm sure if I was a man and they would say, 'Oh, he's a tough leader making hard decisions.' And if I were a man, they would say, 'Oh, he's obliviously very busy so he doesn't have time to be smiling all the time and talking to every person on the campus.' Because I'm a woman, I'm sure some of this does involve gender discrimination issues.

SHAPIRO: But that's not all she has to deal with. A majority of the faculty voted for a resolution calling on her to resign. And students keep taking over buildings and blocking most of the gates to the campus.

Fernandes says she's prepared to be president, and always sees protesters outside her office window. But members of the board of trustees will have to decide if that's the future they want for Gallaudet.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News, Washington

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.