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Students at Premier School for the Deaf Block Controversial Appointment

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Student protesters at the nation’s premier school for the deaf have proclaimed victory after the board of trustees voted Sunday to terminate the appointment of the incoming school president. Gallaudet University had been the scene of ongoing student and faculty protests over the hiring of Jane Fernandes to head the school. We’re joined by campus leader Latoya Plummer. [includes rush transcript]

Student protesters at the nation’s premier school for the deaf have proclaimed victory after the board of trustees voted Sunday to terminate the appointment of the incoming school president. Gallaudet University had been the scene of ongoing student and faculty protests over the hiring of Jane Fernandes to head the school–taking over the position from I. King Jordan. Since the beginning of this month, students have taken over a campus building and blockaded the school’s entrances. Students also seized the administration building and some went on hunger strike. More than 130 people were arrested during the protests.

Fernandes, who has been at Gallaudet for 11 years, has long been a controversial figure on campus, and the protest concerned a range of issues. Some faculty were angry when Jordan appointed her provost six years ago without a regular search and said that the presidential search process was stacked in her favor. Others said she wasn’t the inspirational leader the deaf community needed. And some were angry that a strong black candidate–board of trustees chairman Glenn Anderson–was eliminated early in the process.

Latoya Plummer joins me now from Washington DC — She is one of the student leaders who has been protesting for the past month. Jennifer Kaika will be interpreting for LaToya.

  • LaToya Plummer. Junior at Gallaudet University.
  • Jennifer Kaika. Interpreter.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: LaToya Plummer, joining us in Washington, D.C., a junior at Gallaudet University. LaToya, can you tell us why you and other student leaders have led this protest against the incoming president?

LATOYA PLUMMER: [interpreted] Because we feel that Dr. Fernandes was selected as an outcome of a flawed process and that she has only demonstrated failed leadership for the past eleven years, both as provost at Gallaudet University and dean of the Clerc Center.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, can you talk about how you organized this protest? Explain exactly what happened.

LATOYA PLUMMER: [interpreted] We started with a group of people of color on campus who already recognized the flaws in the system at the very onset. We saw a lack of a multicultural lens. We saw a lack of inclusion, equity and transparency. All of those facets were missing from the process, and we felt that they did not allow enough time to sufficiently recruit qualified candidates for the position.

In response to our concerns, we sent a letter and got no response. And then in April, when they narrowed down the candidate pool to six finalists, one of them was Dr. Glenn Anderson. And then, they narrowed it down to three. We felt again something was wrong with the process and again got no response from the board.

As of May 1, when they appointed Dr. Fernandes as the ninth president of the university, students had just had enough, and the FSSA Coalition came about. For two weeks, we went back and forth about how we wanted the process to go, how we felt that we should carry out the protests, and we recognized that really it was an issue of the flawed process. Dr. Fernandes has not been an effective leader for the past eleven years and could not go on as president.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about your blockades and the strategy you used and how eventually you won the resignation of the president, and now going through with the process you want?

LATOYA PLUMMER: [interpreted] Well, it started — let’s see — when the board of trustees came to Gallaudet, October 5th, we felt it was very important to send a message to the board about their obligation to make a decision in the best interest of the university. We started by sending another letter to the board of trustees that Thursday evening, and we gave them a deadline of 10:00. And we called for an investigation of the search process, and if they didn’t do it, we said that drastic actions would be taken. We gave them that letter twelve hours prior to the deadline, 10:00 in the morning, and at 9:45, we had not yet gotten word from board of trustees, so we took over the Hall Memorial Building, which is the academic center of the university, again, to send a message to the board that we would not give up until the board would hear us out.

That following morning, Friday morning, the Department of Public Safety entered or tried to break the human chain that we had peacefully formed, and some assaults happened. There was no communication. And we again tried to get in touch with the board to let them know the severity of the issue that the university was confronting. And we felt this again was just another bit of evidence that Dr. Fernandes was not able to truly and effectively lead the university. There wasn’t any sign of her actually having any concern for the students, and our takeover of HMB continued over the weekend.

Monday morning, we still had not received word, so the football team took it upon themselves to block off the entire university. They closed down all of the entrances, and the university shut down. And this was because the football team wasn’t able to be involved in the protest in other ways, because of their obligations to the football team. And so, they felt that they have an important role in the university, and they didn’t get enough attention in general about their own educational needs. And so, they felt that this was their opportunity to have a part in the protest. So the lockdown of the entire campus was more so of their doing.

And at the end of that week, Friday the 13th, Dr. Jordon said that because he had no other options, he called for the arrest of over a hundred students. And we felt that that was not fair, because we did not feel that he had actually done everything in his power to maintain open dialogue with the students. So, arrests were made. And we decided to then leave the Sixth Street gate open. We made an agreement with the Metropolitan Police Department and our own campus security to leave that one gate open and the other gates closed. But we persisted despite the arrests. We talked about how we should address the several issues that we had. The board decided to come to town again, and that’s when they made, finally, the decision in the best interest of the university.

AMY GOODMAN: LaToya Plummer, what was the police response to you, the students, as they were arresting you?

LATOYA PLUMMER: [interpreted] Well, we had already had a meeting with the D.C. police the night before the arrests were made, and we negotiated what would happen during the arrests, and we told them that we would go ahead and leave the Sixth Street gate open — excuse me, rather they asked us to leave the Sixth Street gate open. We said that, no, we wouldn’t, because we felt that this was a crisis, and it called for immediate attention and the administration crisis management team and board of trustees. And I personally think that the D.C. police didn’t want to arrest us, but they had to do it by order of Dr. Jordan. And the Department of Public Safety on campus led the arrests.

AMY GOODMAN: What will now happen? Tell us what happens now. Who is the president, as we speak, and how will you participate in the process of this new president being chosen?

LATOYA PLUMMER: [interpreted] Well, we’ve already made that first step in having Dr. Fernandes removed from the entire situation. And, yes, there is a lot of work ahead of us. There’s also a lot of clean-up to do. Our entire system has several issues. And although Dr. Fernandes is out, there still are systematic problems. So we will continue just to be involved in the process to make sure that constituency voices are heard — faculty, staff, students and alumni —- because the university can’t be run by just one person. It’s a community, a collective community, and the climate has to reflect that. So we will ensure that these constituencies are represented during the next search process, and -—

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel empowered by what has happened?

LATOYA PLUMMER: [interpreted] Definitely. It’s overwhelming. We’ve shown the importance of shared governance at the university, the importance of having different groups of people treated equally. The faculty, administration and board of trustees should be seen as having, in many ways, equal power, but the administration has not practiced that. They have refused to share the power of governance with faculty or students up to now.

AMY GOODMAN: LaToya Plummer, I want to thank you for being with us, junior at Gallaudet University, being interpreted by Jennifer Kaika.

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Behind the Struggle at Gallaudet U.: Deaf University Has History of Protest

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