Last month, the Board of Trustees at Gallaudet, the Washington, DC, university for the deaf, voted to rescind the appointment of Jane Fernandes as the school’s new president. The move came after student protests brought the school to a standstill.
The circumstances leading to the Board’s reversal were reminiscent of those that led to the appointment of the outgoing president eighteen years ago. Only this time, they weren’t rooted in an appeal to fairness but, rather, an extreme kind of identity politics.
Outgoing president I. King Jordan got his job in 1988 after Gallaudet students staged protests demanding that the 150-year-old institution finally appoint a deaf president. Whether or not you agreed with their methods and rhetoric, their basic demand seemed reasonable.
But reasonable is not the word I would use to characterize what happened this time around. Like Jordan, Fernandes is deaf and had been associated with Gallaudet for a long time. She may or may not have been the best person for the job, but it doesn’t matter, because the objections to her appointment had nothing to do with her qualifications.
As the Washington Post put it, the real objections had to do with Fernandes’s vision for Gallaudet: a diverse place “that would welcome all sorts of deaf and hard-of-hearing people” and would help “more and more deaf people to function in the hearing world.”
That vision ran afoul of the protesters’ vision of a “university that celebrates what they call Deaf Culture [and] prescribes American Sign Language as the only acceptable medium of communication.” According to this ideology, “deafness is not something that needs to be fixed,” it is an identity.
This ideology is why many of the protesters pointed to Fernandes’s speaking and lip-reading as evidence that she wasn’t “deaf enough” for the job. It’s why they were suspicious of her embrace of new technologies that would help the hearing-impaired function in the larger society. And it’s why one faculty member compared cochlear implants, which enable deaf children to hear, to “genocide.”
This obsession with “Deaf Culture” is why, a few years ago, two deaf women in Washington, DC, went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that their child, whom they had through artificial insemination, would be born deaf.
Their child isn’t the only one hurt by this brand of identity politics: A recent survey of Gallaudet alumni rated “preparation for a career” as the least satisfactory part of their college experience. If the ideologues continue to get their way, it will only get worse. And by the way, this is at our expense: Taxpayers heavily subsidize Gallaudet.
As with most identity politics, the loudest voices speak for few besides themselves. Former newspaper editor Lew Golan, who is deaf, writing in the Post, called the protesters “a very small and very self-marginalized segment of deaf people in America.”
Unfortunately, it’s also true that these “segments” often wield an influence that is disproportionate to their numbers. This, you see, is the ultimate triumph of multiculturalism, where what matters most is not doing the right thing, but appealing to a particular grievance group — and, as in this case, it does damage to the very people in the group.