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Gallaudet's President Struggles with Protests

Protests continued to grow Wednesday at Gallaudet University as students blocked all entrances to the campus, forcing the cancellation of classes and midterm exams. Gallaudet's current president I. King Jordan has angered the protestors with his strong support for the woman who was named to succeed him.

In 1988, students at Gallaudet –- a tiny 1,100-student school for deaf students in Washington, D.C. -- shut down the campus and demanded that the president of their school be deaf. After Jordan was named the first deaf president in the school's history, he met with a room full of adoring students.

That night, Jordan praised the students as they repeatedly chanted his name.

"And I must give the highest praise to the students of Gallaudet for showing exactly how, even now, one can seize an idea with such force that it becomes a reality," he said.

Jordan ends his presidency after this semester, and the atmosphere on campus was supposed to be celebratory. Instead, the students, many of whom were infants when Jordan was first appointed, boo Jordan wherever he goes.

Last week, an art gallery was renamed for Jordan's wife Linda, an artist who has expanded the arts programs on campus. King and Linda Jordan brought their children and 9-year-old grandson to the dedication.

But protesters came too, carrying a black coffin painted with the word 'justice'. Jordan was coated in orange juice and Linda Jordan was jeered by the crowd after she was introduced.

King Jordan is a gregarious man, known for his big, white smile. But now, after months of protests, his eyes are sad.

"Oh I am hurt, I'm deeply, deeply, deeply hurt," says Jordan. "I've been at Gallaudet for 40 years. I came in as a freshman in 1966. I love Gallaudet. I really, really cherish [and] value the students, even those who disagree with me."

Jordan has been a successful president, developing new buildings with cutting-edge architecture so that deaf students can sign to each other from far away. But the main classroom building is shut down right now. After the protests at the dedication ceremonies last week, students came here and took it over.

"When I was a kid, I was amazed at the concept that there could be a deaf president," says Ryan Commerson, an on-campus protest leader.

Commerson says that many students resented Jordan after he asked students this week to end the protest and reopen the main classroom building.

They feel betrayed," Commerson says. "He tried to stop us from protesting and protesting is what got him in the position he's in, in the first place."

The protesters want to stop Jane Fernandes, chosen last May by the board of trustees, from becoming the next president. Fernandes is an experienced Gallaudet administrator and Jordan has become her most vocal supporter. He says she has the ability to bring the school together.

But many students and faculty find her cold. They say she is not identified enough with deaf culture and they question her leadership in the past, asking whether Fernandes or Jordan have done enough to hire professors who are better at signing.

Jordan says it's not always easy to find good teachers who are also excellent signers. When he was a student here 40 years ago, almost no professors could sign fluently.

"Now there are many deaf professors and many hearing who can sign fluently," he says. "Of course, there are still professors who are still learning to sign. And all of us want to see that continue to improve."

In some ways Jordan is a victim of his own success. Students expect more today because Jordan raised those expectations. As the symbolic first deaf president at Gallaudet, Jordan showed deaf students that they could do far more than the traditional jobs: running noisy machinery or teaching deaf children.

And Gallaudet is no longer the only option for deaf students; federal disability law now requires all universities to provide sign-language interpreters. King Jordan was integral in those Congressional efforts.

It's not clear what percentage of students and faculty support the protest. But for now, the university remains shut down.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.