Jane K. Fernandes: An Interview Last year, protests at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, over president-designate Jane Fernandes vaulted her into the national media spotlight (see sidebar on page 15). Beyond the headlines, Fernandes shares her view of some of the larger issues underlying the debate, and offers her perspective on current tensions in the ... Features
Features  |   January 01, 2007
Jane K. Fernandes: An Interview
Author Notes
  • Susan Boswell, an ssistant managing editor of The ASHA Leader, can be reached at sboswell@asha.org.
    Susan Boswell, an ssistant managing editor of The ASHA Leader, can be reached at sboswell@asha.org.×
Article Information
Hearing Disorders / Audiologic / Aural Rehabilitation / Augmentative & Alternative Communication / School-Based Settings / Professional Issues & Training / Features
Features   |   January 01, 2007
Jane K. Fernandes: An Interview
The ASHA Leader, January 2007, Vol. 12, 14-15. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR5.12012007.14
The ASHA Leader, January 2007, Vol. 12, 14-15. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR5.12012007.14
Last year, protests at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, over president-designate Jane Fernandes vaulted her into the national media spotlight (see sidebar on page 15). Beyond the headlines, Fernandes shares her view of some of the larger issues underlying the debate, and offers her perspective on current tensions in the social fabric of the deaf community and on changes now occurring within Deaf Culture that could shape the future of deaf education. She also shares the turning points in her own life that have influenced the direction of her career and her vision for Deaf Culture and Gallaudet.
Q: Tell us about your experiences growing up with hearing loss.
Being deaf has run in my family for generations. I was born deaf. My mother and one brother are deaf, as is one of my nieces. As with all the deaf people in my family, I grew up speaking. I attended public schools in Worcester, MA, before there were state or federal laws that require accommodations to be made. Many professionals and friends worked hard to help me succeed.
I earned a bachelor’s degree in French and comparative literature from Trinity College in CT, and later earned a master’s degree and doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Iowa. While at Iowa, my roommate was taking an American Sign Language (ASL) course for which she was required to visit a “deaf club,” and she asked if I would go with her. At the club, people were shocked to find out I was deaf and didn’t know ASL. They welcomed me and taught me about the deaf community and their language. By opening myself to this perspective, I was willing to expand the beliefs that I grew up with to become a better person.
Q: Talk about your career and how you came to work at Gallaudet. What are your greatest career accomplishments?
After graduate school, my first job was to serve as acting director of the American Sign Language Programs at Northeastern University in Boston. From there I worked in several other positions including the Interpreter Education Program at Kapiolani Community College–University of Hawaii and the Hawaii Center for the Deaf and Blind. I founded the interpreter training program which is still in operation today. At the Hawaii Center for the Deaf and the Blind, with the help of many in the Hawaii deaf community, I transformed the school from an enrollment of seven students to an academic community with an enrollment of 80 students from pre-school to high school.
I then became the vice president of the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center. Among my proudest accomplishments there was focusing the Center’s work on three priorities: literacy for all deaf children, family involvement, and transition from high school to careers and further education. In collaboration with other schools, we developed 250 projects, notably “Shared Reading,” “Family Math” project, “Decision Maker,” and “Literacy: It All Connects.”
In April 2000, I was named Gallaudet university provost. In that position, I count as my most important accomplishment the collaborative development of eight strategic goals for Gallaudet. One of these goals calls for Gallaudet to become a model of what it means to be an inclusive deaf university in all aspects of its operations, academic and community life. In addition, the university will strive to be a place where everyone is included, valued, and respected.
Q: What changes do you see happening in the Deaf Culture? Is there a particular structure to the deaf community?
To me, everyone who is deaf or hard of hearing is part of the deaf community. A smaller group within that community comprises culturally Deaf people. This group is bonded by shared norms and the use of ASL. They value the use of vision and sign and don’t value voice. Culturally Deaf people have a well-developed social network of social events, sports, clubs, and organizations.
But today, there is much less sense of place in American Deaf Culture. Twenty years ago, deaf people would gather monthly in rented halls to socialize. Now, it seems we prefer to gather for conferences. While we have lost the deaf press we once had, we have a booming deaf media through the Internet and Web blogs. New communication tools, while generally life-enhancing, can also be destructive and negative. During the [Gallaudet] protest, blogs were used to spread falsehoods. I was shocked and hurt at what was said.
Another big change involves the education of children who are deaf and hard of hearing. Today, 91% are in public schools. Deaf schools are not as strong in numbers and they don’t have the number of students they once did. Of course, some states such as California, Florida, Maryland, and Indiana still have strong deaf schools. But in states like Nebraska, deaf schools have closed. The shift away from deaf schools poses a threat to Deaf Culture.
But I believe Deaf Culture is here to stay. It will adapt to new social forces exerting pressure on it as it has done many times before. To survive, Deaf Culture needs to stay true to its beliefs, language, and principles—and expand to include people who are different.
At Gallaudet, I see as the core of the university the culture of white deaf people who use ASL as their primary language. As a result of the recent protest, this dominance will continue to grow. Students of color comprise 49% of the current school-age deaf and hard of hearing population, yet they are a small population at Gallaudet. Many of these students are hard of hearing and combine speaking and signing when they communicate. These characteristics don’t fit with the Gallaudet core; when they come to Gallaudet, students must change to fit or leave. Often students of color have left without graduating.
My efforts to expand the core of the university were perceived as a threat to ASL. I believe that expanding the core by becoming more inclusive of all deaf people is the best way—and perhaps the only way—to keep Gallaudet University a strong and viable institution of higher education.
Q: How are cochlear implants changing the deaf community?
Cochlear implants are changing the deaf community because they enable infants and young children who are deaf to have access to spoken language at much clearer levels and at very early ages when their brains are most primed to learn language. More children who are deaf will have intelligible speech skills and usable hearing. I believe these children have a right to learn ASL and learn about their identities as deaf people.
At the Clerc Center on the Gallaudet campus, I worked to establish a Cochlear Implant Education Center that supports the deaf child’s acquisition of both ASL and English. Seeing that ASL and Deaf Culture can be retained, even while technology is harnessed, has led more and more deaf adults to get cochlear implants.
Q: Were you surprised by the student protests after you were named president? What do you feel are the real reasons behind the protests?
I suspected some kind of protest no matter who had been named president, but I was surprised by the depth of passionate feelings that have been expressed. While I fully respect and support the right of anyone to disagree, I cannot support the violent path the protest took.
The protest was not monolithic. Some faculty members harbored resentment at changes I made as provost. Protestors gave different reasons for the protest, but I believe the core group consisted of people who felt their identity was threatened.
The protestors saw the presidenct as the “Mayor of Deaf Culture” and I did not have the characteristics they wanted to see in that position. I saw myself as an administrator who would represent all deaf people.
Contrary to public efforts to make the protest appear peaceful, there were threats of violence and acts of harassment towards me and my family as well as to some Board of Trustees members, those who supported me, others in the Gallaudet administration, and even to students who did not support the protest. Over the past seven months I have received thousands of letters, e-mails, contacts, flowers, fruit baskets, prayers, and more from my many supporters in the deaf community.
I am very concerned that the Gallaudet Board of Trustees’ decision to name a president has now been overturned twice in 20 years by a student protest. This action does not bode well for future Boards of Trustees and future presidents who will inevitably have to make hard decisions.
Q: What do you see as the next step for you in your career?
That remains to be seen. I am exploring a variety of opportunities.
Turmoil at Gallaudet

Shortly after the appointment of Jane K. Fernandes on May 1, 2006, as president of Gallaudet University, a storm of protests erupted from students, faculty, and alumni.

Protesters decried the search process, citing a lack of diversity among the candidates seriously considered. They opposed Fernandes’ appointment for a number of reasons, including her leadership style and decisions she had made during her six years as university provost. Protesters stated that she was not the best person to address the lack of diversity, the declining enrollment, and the four-year graduation rate of 6%, according the National Center for Education Statistics. They also claimed that Fernandes, who uses speech, speechreading, and ASL, was “not deaf enough.”

Protesters erected a tent city outside the main entrance on Florida Avenue last spring. In the fall, they returned to their city with demonstrations that culminated in hunger strikes, a blockade of all campus entrances, and a campus takeover that led to the arrest of 134 students. The students then marched to the U.S. Capitol. The university receives $108 million annually in federal funding.

The impasse broke when Gallaudet’s Board of Trustees bowed to the demands of the protesters and revoked Fernandes’ appointment on Oct. 30. Silent cheers of celebration spread across the campus. Following the decision, Sen. John McCain resigned from the board, followed by Chair Brenda Jo Brueggermann. Vice Chair Pamela Holmes became chair. Frank Wu, of Wayne State University, was named vice chair. The 134 students who were arrested face university sanctions. Meanwhile, Gallaudet’s board of trustees selected Robert R. Davila, who is deaf, as interim president to lead the university for up to two years while the school conducts a new search for a permanent president.

Submit a Comment
Submit A Comment
Comment Title

This feature is available to Subscribers Only
Sign In or Create an Account ×
January 2007
Volume 12, Issue 1