Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Deaf and Dumb

In a reactionary hyperbolic outrage contest, it would be hard to pick the winner between American college students and the Deaf-with-a-capital-D crowd. Put the two together and you get nothing less than the delightfully entertaining spectacle recently concluded at Gallaudet University.

For those of you who have not been following this train wreck on the local news each night, a brief recap: Gallaudet's Board of Trustees named sitting provost Jane Fernandez as the university's next president. Students, faculty, and alumni nationwide went apeshit. Why they went apeshit depends on whom you ask. According to some people, Fernandez is "not Deaf enough." Although Fernandez has been deaf since birth, she grew up "mainstreamed" (speaking, reading lips, associating primarily with hearing people) and learned American Sign Language only as an adult. Worse, Fernandez publicly advocated making Gallaudet more inclusive, noting that "there are many ways of being deaf."

According to other people, Deaf identity politics had nothing to do with the reaction, which was instead about a flawed and possibly racist selection process, Fernandez's leadership style, and a host of other issues. I suppose the latter reasons are possible, although it seems unlikely that alumni would get quite so exercised over the leadership style or selection process of a president they would never have to deal with directly. And we are talking about a group of people who have referred to cochlear implants--medical devices that can assist those with sensorineural hearing loss to hear--as "genocide."

Whatever their motivation, the protests quickly escalated. Students occupied the main academic building for a month and, together with sympathetic faculty, turned the campus into a tent city. Alumni flew in from around the country to join in candlelight vigils, marches on the US Capitol, and hunger strikes. Other alumni erected a coast-to-coast network of tent cities in support. The football team eventually blocked all entrances to the campus, shutting down the school for three days. Mass arrests followed, and the University sent a front-loader to unblock the gates, resulting in several injuries. In the end, the protestors won; Fernandez was unceremoniously dumped by the board of trustees. Protesters across campus and the nation screamed and wept in delight, and a life-size effigy of Fernandez was burnt in celebration.

Of course, one can hardly fault the board for carrying out what is, after all, Gallaudet's traditional means of selecting a president. Outgoing President I. King Jordan got his job the same way in 1988--the trustees chose a candidate, students barricaded the campus and marched on the Capitol, and the first choice was dumped.

OK, Gallaudet, we get it. Deafness is difference, not inferiority. ASL is a language, and its users are a distinct cultural and linguistic minority. You have a right to self-determination, power not pity, nothing about you without you, yada yada yada. I buy all of that, and I think most people do these days. But is it maybe just possible that we would take you a little more seriously if you didn't fly off the goddamned end of the Earth every time you chose a president?

Selecting a leader for an institution of higher education is an important undertaking. But people, candlelight vigils are for dead children. Campus take-overs are for when ROTC programs are supplying 2/3 of the officer corps to an imperialist war in southeast Asia. Hunger strikes are for apartheid. Chill.

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