The news is out: Gallaudet University is searching for its eleventh president. Here’s the Presidential Search Advisory Committee web portal and here’s the specific job description, including desired candidate qualifications. I’ll be anxiously following the news. While I have never been on the campus before, I am obviously aware of its history as a college for the deaf (even though it was never on my college radar) and I know several current and former students.
Choosing a president of a college that caters at a specific group of people is a sensitive issue, because often the president is expected to share the same characteristic. For instance, students, faculty, and staff at an all-women’s college or a historically black college might be more favorable towards a female and a black president, respectively. Wellesley College has only had female presidents in its history, and Mount Holyoke College has had mostly female presidents.
Gallaudet is unique in that, as the world’s only university that caters to deaf and hard of hearing students across the board, the president is now expected to be deaf. The first seven presidents of Gallaudet were hearing, and it was not until the now famous 1988 Deaf President Now (DPN) saga that they had a deaf president.
It’s also not enough to just be deaf; the Gallaudet culture prides itself on American Sign Language (ASL), so the president is now expected to be fluent in that language (and immersed in deaf culture). I’m reminded of the 2006 fiasco when Gallaudet appointed Dr. Jane Fernandes as president. Students protested for a variety of reasons, but their argument can be succinctly stated as: “she wasn’t deaf enough.” The board of trustees eventually revoked her appointment. Strangely enough, I don’t remember personally knowing anything about it back in 2006. When I first learned about the incident a few years later, I thought the students mostly embarrassed themselves, but now I’ve become more understanding of their perspective. Incidentally, Dr. Fernandes still ended up with a strong career, as she’s now the president of Guilford College.
Thus, if the next president does not meet the de facto profile requirements, expect the students (and maybe faculty) to protest. The current job description asks that the candidate “has a deep understanding of bilingualism and biculturalism in the deaf community,” though it does not explicitly state that he or she be deaf or be fluent in ASL.
So, as I said, I’ll be anxiously following the news.