Depending on which faction you favor, either Dr. Fernandes failed to respect the special culture of those who grew up speaking sign language or she was victimized for endorsing a diversity of methods for deaf communication, including lip-reading and cochlear implants. A third account, published in an op-ed in the New York Times, suggested that protesters were upset about the selection process that Gallaudet used to choose Dr. Fernandes. We’ll never get to know what Dr. Fernandes would have done in her role as Gallaudet’s president, because Gallaudet’s trustees decided that her presidency would never be given a fair chance for success. True enough. Dr. Fernandes didn’t even get to enjoy a minute’s worth of a honeymoon period, and the trustees wisely decided that the presidential search needed to start from scratch.
But what does this mean for the next president of Gallaudet or for presidents of other universities? How likely is it that Gallaudet’s trustees are going to find someone who will be brave enough serve as the president of such a contentious institution, especially after the protesters have learned that, if they scream long enough and hard enough, they’ll win?
I have my suspicions about the motives of some of the protesters. It’s possible that not all of the protesters were concerned about the appropriate educational philosophy for a university that serves the deaf. Many of the protesters pointed out that Dr. Fernandes was not a popular provost at Gallaudet. Provosts, like all university leaders, make enemies: sometimes because they’re inept, and sometimes because they’re malicious. But sometimes provosts (and presidents) make enemies because they’re pushing for change at their institutions, and those who don’t want those changes push back—hard.
Universities don’t run the way that businesses do. Although universities have nominal hierarchies in place—the president and provost are responsible for the university as a whole, deans are responsible for their colleges and schools, and department heads are responsible for their departments—those hierarchies aren’t true hierarchies. Universities are run by a system of shared governance, with the faculty having significant power in making certain core decisions.
Here’s an abbreviated version of shared governance: it’s designed to make sure that those with responsibility for carrying out certain functions have the opportunity to set the policy for those functions. Therefore, the faculty of a university sets the direction for its curriculum, chooses what characteristics it wants to see in its admitted students, and establishes the criteria for faculty hiring, promotion and tenure, and post-tenure review. The administration of a university or of its academic units is supposed to facilitate the faculty’s decisions and ensure that actions on behalf of the faculty’s policies are carried out with the appropriate due process. The trustees of a university, then, are supposed to look at the university’s policies and goals from a bird's-eye view and set the general direction—but not to micromanage the institution or its leaders. Shared governance asks the administration and faculty to invest in the long-term success of the university by taking an active role in running it.
In part II (tomorrow), I’ll posit a theory of why the protests at Gallaudet worked so well.